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Health center eases the pain of high costs

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When West Glenwood resident Barbara Romero was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis about a year ago, it solved a mystery but created a dilemma.Romero finally knew what was ailing her, but faced the prospect of a $10,000 annual bill for an injectable drug that might help her cope with it.”I thought, ‘If I have to pay for it myself there’s no way I can afford it,'” said Romero, 57.It turns out that she doesn’t have to pay for it, thanks to one of three programs provided through Mountain Family Health Center in Glenwood Springs to help address the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs.Romero is benefiting from what is called the medication assistance program, which is offered by pharmaceutical companies to patients who qualify based on financial-need criteria established by the companies.”This is what we use for the very expensive medications,” Dr. Chris Tonozzi, medical director of Mountain Family in Glenwood, said of the program.It’s not uncommon for the program to save patients the kind of money Romero is saving. Tonozzi said in most cases the center charges patients $10 to apply for the program and another $10 every three months to reapply. The fees cover the center’s administrative and paperwork costs associated with the program.The center operates what in Colorado is designated as an outlet pharmacy. No pharmacist is on site, but one supervises the operation. It offers a small selection of medicines, such as birth control pills, urgent medications like antibiotics, and drugs for chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes.The pharmacy generally is used by the uninsured or by senior citizens on Medicare. The pharmacy isn’t set up to process private insurance claims. However, some patients with prescription drug insurance use the pharmacy if its drugs cost less than the prices under their insurance.Besides offering the medication assistance program, the center participates in a federal program under which pharmaceutical companies are required to give discounted prices to low-income patients. Mountain Family qualifies to offer the discounted prices because it is a community health center that receives federal funds to serve the needy. The discount program can allow patients to buy drugs at sometimes a third or even a quarter of the normal cost.Mountain Family also can provide patients sample drugs provided by manufacturers. Samples can help in cases such as when a patient urgently needs a medication, Tonozzi said.He said Mountain Family realizes the goal of manufacturers that provide samples is to end up selling their drugs, which sometimes are more expensive than those offered by other companies. If marketing with samples results in the center selling higher-cost medications, that would run contrary to its goal of keeping drug prices affordable.”There is no free lunch. It comes at a price, and we need to be conscious of that,” Tonozzi said.People must be Mountain Family patients to participate in the discount, sample and medication assistance programs. A family must fall under 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines, as established based on family income and size, for the discounted drug pricing program and for discounted office visits. However, families with higher income may still be able to benefit from good prices from the pharmacy, Tonozzi said.Families over that income threshold can still obtain other medical services at Mountain Family. They also still may qualify for other low-cost programs, such as mammograms and cancer screenings.Tonozzi said some of the pharmacy programs aren’t open to undocumented immigrants.”That’s a gap for us, since we’ll see people regardless of their legal status,” he said.Legal status doesn’t matter in the case of the federal discount pricing program. The medication assistance program eligibility rules for undocumented immigrants depend on the manufacturer.For patients able to take advantage of the Mountain Family pharmacy programs, it can make a world of difference.”Thank God for them,” Romero said of Mountain Family. “It’s been helping so much.”She doesn’t have prescription drug insurance. She filed for disability three years ago and had to file an appeal, and is awaiting a decision on that.Her disease can make it hard just to get out of bed or go down the stairs – but her arthritis drug has resulted in a marked improvement in her mobility, she said.She said Amgen and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, the company that makes the medication, is quite helpful.When she runs short on it, she simply calls the company and it ships more right to her door.”It sure has helped,” she said. “There’s some days that I just can’t even walk or nothing, and if I didn’t have that medication I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t know what I’d do.”Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com

Mountain Family Health Center will hold a grand opening Friday, May 13, for its new, expanded Glenwood Springs facility at 1905 Blake Ave. An open house will be from 2-5 p.m. Tours will be provided. Beforehand, Mountain Family will hold a luncheon and awards ceremony to honor contributions to the center made by Valley View Hospital, Gateway Construction Corp., Garner Associates-Architects, the Caring for Colorado Foundation, the Aspen Valley Community Foundation and the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation. This is Mountain Familys third facility since coming to Glenwood Springs. The new location is on the lower level of the same building it has occupied since 2002. Mountain Family has doubled its space, going from 4,500 to 9,000 square feet, and from seven exam rooms to 15. Mountain Family Health Center serves patients regardless of ability to pay. Mountain Family also operates offices in Black Hawk and Nederland.Last year, the Glenwood facility served about 4,500 patients who paid 16,800 visits there. The clinic employs about 35 people, including three doctors.


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