Discount prescription drug cards now available to older Americans offer only meager savings, particularly in urban areas. The cards, which are marketed by private companies, charge seniors a modest fee, usually $12 to $25 per year, in exchange for discounts. But savings are minimal for many of the most popular name-brand drugs.
On average, seniors in three large cities -- Washington, Chicago and Seattle -- see savings of 8.2 percent on 12 name-brand drugs bought with drug discount cards compared with buying retail. The savings were more significant -- close to twice as much -- in a rural area in Georgia.
The savings also were more significant for generic drugs. Drug discount programs charged an average 37 percent less than retail for generics. However, the price of generic versions are much lower to begin with, so seniors saved only a few dollars per prescription.
The cost of prescription drugs is crucial for many older people. Medicare, which provides health insurance to all Americans over age 65, does not cover prescription drugs used outside the hospital. Last year, Democrats and Republicans, including President Bush, campaigned for office with promises to add drug coverage to Medicare. So far no plan has made it even out of a congressional committee.
Still, even if the plan goes forward, the administration allows that the cards are no substitute for adding drug coverage to Medicare itself and helping to pay for it -- an expensive and complicated task.