Kennedy, Christy’s Owner Launch Drug Discount Plan

HYANNIS — A former congressman and a former embattled Turnpike Authority board member have joined forces to fight the rising cost of prescription drugs.

A partnership announced yesterday by Joseph P. Kennedy II and Christy Mihos gives discounts of as much as 90 percent on prescription drugs through Citizens Health cards sold at the nine Christy’s Market stores owned by Mihos in the Cape.

Citizens Health is a nonprofit branch of Citizens Energy Corp., of which Kennedy is a chairman. The health division provides lower-cost medications and eye-care products to 25,000 people in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

“I haven’t been this excited about a service that Christy’s can offer its public since we started offering self-serve gasoline and Mass. state lottery in the early ‘70s,” Mihos said at a press conference outside the Christy’s Market on Ocean Street. “This is one of the real good things that we can offer our customers.”

An annual membership in Citizens Health costs $12 per individual, $28 for families. Christy’s employees are being encouraged to promote the cards in stores.

Citizens Health covers the cost of discounted drugs through bulk purchasing and the reduced tax burden that nonprofit organizations receive.

“For uninsured senior citizens and working families, there’s nothing convenient about high prescription drug costs,” said Kennedy, who left the House of Representatives in 1998 after 12 Years.

Kennedy said cardholders will save “an average of $13 every time they use the card” for prescription drugs.

He described the partnership with Mihos as “another sign of Christy’s civic spirit and his concern about the needs of working people and retirees who are struggling with the burden of the rising costs of medications.”

Seniors hard hit

Medicare recipients nationwide spent an average of $813 out of pocket for prescription drugs in 2000 and are expected to spend $1,051 this year — up by 29 percent — according to the Kaiser Family Foundation health research group.

The foundation says 45 percent of people age 85 and older, arguable the most vulnerable segment of society, have no prescription drug coverage.

Hyannis summer resident Helen Daphnis, 80, said she knows many seniors who can no longer afford their prescription drugs and have even gone to Canada for discounts.

Daphnis’ sister-in-law, Jeannette Skenas, 75, said Nitrazine paper, used to test urine and saliva for proper acidic and alkaline balance, rose from $10 to $57 within the past two years. High acidity can lead to stomach trouble, bloating and indigestion, while elevated alkaline levels can cause renal failure and even death.

“I could never afford something like that,” she said.

Both women, who have known Mihos since he was a boy, were at yesterday’s press conference.

While nationally the cost of prescription drugs is a hot topic, the high percentage of retirees on the Cape makes the issue more likely to resonate even more. More than 11.2 percent of Barnstable [County]’s residents were 75 and older compared with 6.8 for the state, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

In addition to deep discounts for medications, the card also offers savings of up to 50 percent on eyeglass frames and lenses, and as much as 20 percent for prescriptions from vendors that include Pearle Vision Center, Sears, Target and JC Penney.

The discounts through Citizens Health are smaller for generic drugs than for brand names, with the notable exception of Prozac, which is available at a 90 percent discount, to $15 for 60 pills. (The patent on the drug recently lapsed opening it up to competition from lower-priced generics.)

Lipitor, which is taken to control high cholesterol, is offered at a 24 percent break, while the anti-depressant Zoloft comes at 30 percent less.

Among generics, the cost of the antibiotic Cephalexin is reduced by 62 percent, while [Ranitidine], for stomach ailments, is cut by 75 percent.

The cards can be used at 36 pharmacies on Cape Cod, the islands and Wareham, Kennedy said, none farther than a mile and a half from any resident.

A whiff of politics

Mark Boardman of Orleans, a Republican candidate for the state Senate who was also on hand for the announcement, described the Citizens Health initiative as a “great opportunity.”

Public-private partnerships “definitely help people,” Boardman said, since administrative costs are reduced and the operations tend to be more streamlined.

The partnerships also a sign of the growing importance of prescription drug coverage on the political landscape.

Democrat Steve Grossman, a summer resident of Centerville, has campaigned heavily on the issue for weeks and promises if elected governor to forgo his salary until the Legislature enacts some type of coverage.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a $350 billion bill late last month, largely along partisan lines, to provide prescription drug coverage through private insurers.

The state’s 10 [congressmen], all Democrats, criticized the measure as inadequate and voted against it.

The U.S. Senate is expected to unveil a more expansive, costlier bill later this month.

Kennedy has served as chairman of the Boston-based Citizens Energy Corp., which offers discounts on heating oil to low-income residents, since 1979.

Although Kennedy’s and Mihos’ politics have rarely intersected, yesterdays’ announcement in some ways seemed like a campaign stop.

Asked if he would run for office any time soon, Kennedy demurred. “I’m having too much fun doing [what] I’m doing now,” he said.

Mihos, who prevailed in court earlier this year when acting Gov. Jane Swift tried to remove him and Jordan Levy from the state’s Turnpike Authority, was also asked the question.

“I’m eminently unelectable,” said Mihos, who was appointed to the authority. He ran for state Senate in 1990 and lost in a recount by three votes.

Mihos said he is working to get the 7-Eleven chain involved in the Citizens Health program. He sold 150 of his markets to 7-Eleven in 1998, leaving him with the nine stores on Cape Cod.