By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
President Barack Obama’s health care plan may be a hot issue in the politics of 2012, but to 2,000 Sonoma County residents — and more than 120,000 people statewide — it amounts to cold cash.
A provision of the Affordable Care Act has accounted for $1.16 million in prescription drug discounts to 2,004 Medicare recipients this year in Sonoma County, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said.
Statewide, the savings for 121,587 elderly and disabled Medicare beneficiaries amounts to $69.5 million for an average of $572 per person in the first seven months of the year.
County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said the cash flow was a “payoff” from the health care act, calling it a “win-win-win” for health care, seniors and the economy.
Virtually every dollar that seniors save on prescription drugs will be spent on food, transportation and entertainment, said Zane, a former CEO of the nonprofit Council on Aging.
“That’s huge,” she said. “That’s money reinvested back into our economy.”
Nationwide, 1.4 million Medicare recipients have saved nearly $885 million this year on prescription drugs as a result of the health care law’s provisions to plug the Medicare Part D coverage gap known as the doughnut hole.
Until health care law provision went into effect in 2010 Medicare beneficiaries had to pay 100 percent of their annual drug costs between $2,700 and $4,350 a year This year, the law gives them a 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs in the doughnut hole between $2,930 and $4,700.
Drug companies were required by the law to offer the discount to maintain participation in the Medicare Part D program.
Since 2010, the doughnut hole savings amount to more than $4 billion nationwide, including $340.6 million in California, tops among the 50 states, the government said.
Starting next year, the discount will be increased each year until it reaches 75 percent in 2020, eliminating the doughnut hole and enabling Medicare beneficiaries to pay 25 percent of the cost of all their drugs up to the annual out-of-pocket spending limit.
During her Council on Aging tenure, Zane said she saw the impact of drug prices on seniors who fell into the doughnut hole. Many resorted to strategies like cutting their pills in half.
A 79-year-old Cazadero resident said she quit taking three of her five prescriptions when hit by “devastating” cost increases.
Along with the doughnut hole drug discount, the health care law also is making preventive services — such as breast and colon cancer screenings — free for Medicare beneficiaries.
So far this year in California, nearly 1.5 million Medicare beneficiaries — half of those who are eligible — received at least one free preventive service.
Sonoma County has 75,757 Medicare beneficiaries, about 16 percent of the population.