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Pacific Students Help Seniors Pick Prescription Drugs

Pharmacy students organize health fairs to help seniors enroll in Medicare Part D plans
Pharmacy students help seniors enroll in Medicare Part D at a health fairRandall Gee

In the past five years, Pacific's pharmacy students have helped seniors throughout northern California save more than half a million dollars in prescription drug costs. The students run health fairs where they coach seniors on how to navigate the complex world of getting their prescription drugs through Medicare Part D.

By Rhashad PittmanNov 15, 2011
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In a time when many seniors on fixed incomes have to choose between medications or meals because they cannot afford both, saving money is crucial. Pharmacy students at University of the Pacific recognize the financial struggle many seniors face and have reached out to help them.

Students from Pacific's Thomas J. Long School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences have organized dozens of health fairs during the past five years that target Medicare beneficiaries, the majority of whom are seniors. This year, 13 of these events have been held in Stockton, Lodi, Modesto, Palo Alto and San Jose.

Not only are the students helping those in need through the health fairs, they are also getting hands on experience in dealing with patients and a highly-complex government prescription drug program, Medicare Part D. Their efforts enhance what they learn in the classroom and help prepare them for their professional careers.

During the events, pharmacy students advise seniors on how to pick a Medicare Part D prescription drug plan that meets their medical needs at the lowest cost possible. They also offer health screenings and immunizations. The health fairs are held throughout the Central Valley and the Bay Area, reaching hundreds of residents each year, many of whom are low-income. Since Pacific started the health fairs, pharmacy students have served more than 1,000 Medicare beneficiaries and have saved seniors nearly half a million dollars in medication costs.

Last year alone, Pacific pharmacy students helped 401 Medicare beneficiaries, resulting in out-of-pocket savings of more than $170,000. Of those recipients, 115 seniors were low-income and 80 were assisted in a language other than English, including Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

"It's very rewarding to see the faces of the seniors light up because we were able to help them save a few hundred dollars that they may need for food or to keep the lights on," said Keira Domer, a first year Pacific pharmacy student. "It's also a good feeling to take what we've learned in the classroom and apply it in the real world where we can now, thanks to this course and the tireless efforts of Dr. Patel and the faculty, be of much-needed service to others."

Of the 4.8 million California residents who receive Medicare, 1.2 million are eligible for a low-income subsidy to pay for medications, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. For 2012 prescription drug coverage, Medicare beneficiaries residing in California can pick from 33 different prescription drug plans with monthly premiums that range from $15.10 to $114.90.

Under the guidance of Pacific professors and professional pharmacists, the students determine if beneficiaries qualify for a low-income subsidy, pharmaceutical assistance programs and other cost-saving options. Student pharmacists also evaluate the recipients' medications to determine if the prescriptions are safe to take together or if the combination of drugs could cause severe side effects or other health issues. In 2010, pharmacy students identified severe medication-related issues in nearly a quarter of the beneficiaries who were served.

Stockton resident Fran Bozzano saved $25 in annual medication costs at a recent health fair in Lodi. The 66-year-old said she and her mother found it difficult to find the best prescription drug plan and were concerned about the side effects of taking multiple medications. "We've had to try to navigate these waters by ourselves and it's much easier to have help," she said.

To help seniors pick a Medicare Part D prescription plan, the students, the majority of whom are in their second year of pharmacy school, must complete two semester-long courses on various aspects of the Medicare Part D benefit.

In addition to reviewing prescription drug plans at health fairs, pharmacy students also test blood pressure, cholesterol and bone density, screen for diabetes, asthma and memory decline, and offer vaccinations for the flu, shingles and pneumococcal.

The outreach events provide invaluable hands-on learning experiences for students, said Dr. Rajul Patel, the professor who oversees the Medicare Part D class and health fairs. "They get to apply what they've learned to real world situations that are unscripted and involve real people, with an array of medical conditions and financial situations," he said. "It's a huge benefit not only for the senior citizens, but for the students."

The School of Pharmacy's Dean Phillip Oppenheimer and professors from the pharmacy school have been instrumental in supporting the students' efforts, Patel said, particularly Mark Walberg and Joseph Woelfel, who have been involved in the outreach efforts since they started. Pacific pharmacy professors Sian Carr-Lopez and Suzanne Galal also play a key role, including teaching the Medicare classes.


For more information about Pacific's Medicare Part D community outreach program click here.



about the author

Rhashad Pittman   Rhashad Pittman is the media relations coordinator at Pacific.