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Northland seniors share stories about drug costs

Larry Volkenant of Hermantown talks about the high cost of doctor-required prescription drugs he and his now-deceased wife had to pay for her cancer treatment during a meeting with Sen. Al Franken's staff at Essentia Health Hermantown Clinic on Tuesday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 4
Megan Undeberg (left in blue), pharmacist and assistant professor at UMD, makes a point during a roundtable discussion with seniors and health professionals on the topic of skyrocketing prescription drug prices at Essentia Health Hermantown Clinic on Tuesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Peggy Hiestand-Harri of Hermantown describes her experiences with ever-rising prices of prescription drugs while meeting with members of Sen. Al Franken's staff at Essentia Health Hermantown Clinic on Tuesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Therese Campbell of Duluth shares her story about the high cost of prescription drugs during a meeting of area seniors with Sen. Al Franken's staff at Essentia Health Hermantown Clinic on Tuesday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 4

As his wife was dying of cancer, Larry Volkenant faced the additional burden of managing the cost of her prescription drugs.

"Some of the medications that were prescribed for my wife at that time were over $400," the Hermantown man told a small group that gathered Monday morning to talk about prescription drug prices.

"Very expensive," said Volkenant, 69, who was left with $1,000 worth of unused drugs that had to be disposed of when Nelly Rose Volkenant died in October 2014, "It was unquestionable that she needed it, that I was going to pay for it."

The cost of many prescription drugs has only risen — in some cases, risen sharply — in the 17 months since then.

Those costs, and especially their impact on senior citizens, were the topic of the forum on Monday at Essentia Health-Hermantown Clinic led by staff from the office of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

It was the 11th such meeting Franken's office has conducted across the state, with a view toward bringing Minnesotans' stories about the effect of high drug prices to a Senate hearing, said Samantha Mills, a field representative for Franken.

"Older Minnesotans are making really difficult decisions, having to decide between their health and well-being, their prescription medications that make them well, and their food and their housing," Mills said. "Even today we heard that some seniors are going without food to pay for their medications."

Although it's not at that point for Duluthian Carole Newkumet, 67, high-priced medications are having an impact on her and her husband, she said.

"My husband ... has multiple health issues, so he's on 14 different medications," Newkumet said. "One of the ones is Januvia for diabetes, and he's tried other ones. None are as effective. The whole point is to avoid insulin dependency. The other day I went to pick up Januvia that I used to pay $80 for a three-month supply. It was $500."

They can afford it, Newkumet said, but the issue is: "Do we want to spend our entire pension on drugs? That was part of my reason for coming today, to find out what are we going to do to control drug costs."

Megan Undeberg, a pharmacist on the faculty at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy in Duluth, said the stories she hears from seniors are "devastating."

It's not a problem for people who are basically healthy and take few drugs, said Undeberg, who works with patients at the Raiter Clinic and Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet. The problem comes with seniors who have more challenging conditions, for which only brand-name drugs may be available.

"They're astronomical," Undeberg said. "The prices of these drugs are reaching that critical point where truly I'm hearing stories from people that they're making the choice of do I buy food or do I pay for my prescriptions. Or vice versa, do I skip my prescriptions so I can pay for my food, or my heat, or my electricity."

Recent increases in drug prices are "shocking" Undeberg said. "We're not talking $5. We're often talking a 25 to 50 percent increase, and this is on brand names, typically. We have seen some scenarios with the generics going the opposite direction. But ... I'm working with folks who are trapped in using these brand names because there is no alternative."

The dozen or so people who attended the session also included a representative of UCare and volunteers from AARP. That diversity was typical of previous meetings, Mills said, although some brought larger turnouts.

In addition to collecting stories for Franken to take to Washington, his office worked with the Arrowhead Area on Aging to offer resources seniors can use when faced with high drug prices.

Specifically, Mills touted Minnesota's Senior LinkAge Line as a place people can turn to for expertise in finding discounts or other options regarding drug costs. "They can help you navigate through the different programs," Mills said.

Volkenant said he wishes he had known about that during his wife's battle with cancer. He paid out of pocket for medications prescribed for his wife by emergency room physicians only to learn that his insurer wouldn't cover them, he said.

"(Senior LinkAge Line) could have been some leverage for me and (could have) taken some of the burden off my shoulders," Volkenant said.

Senior LinkAge Line will help seniors file appeals to the insurers, Mills said.

But Therese Campbell of Duluth said she has been faced with instances in which no appeal was possible and no genetic substitute was available.

"You just have to pay whatever they are because that's what you need," Campbell said.

To get involved

To share your story about high drug costs, email:

Contact Senior LinkAge Line at: (800) 333-2433.