Retirees Rail as They Wait for Drugs to Arrive in Mail

Article excerpt

The company that runs a mail-order prescription drug program for federal retirees has been overwhelmed by a surge in demand, and its customers are complaining about delays and other foul-ups with their medicines.

As a result, two powerhouse trade associations are slinging mud, and each is blaming the other for the problems. Four members of Congress have pressed the Clinton administration for a report on the situation.

"I have literally spent one month on this phone with this company," said Irma Cullison of Baltimore, the wife of a retired engineer at Fort Holabird.

Mrs. Cullison said that when her order finally arrived, her bottle was seven pills short, and her husband's was shy two pills.

The National Association of Chain Drug Stores in Alexandria is a staunch opponent of mail-order delivery of medicine. It is at odds with the Chicago-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, which operates the retiree health plan.

In an ad that ran yesterday in newspapers, including The Washington Times, the drugstores charged Blue Cross with "causing chaos for retirees."

Blue Cross has scheduled newspaper ads for today, blaming the pharmacies for an "unprecedented campaign of misinformation."

Until this year, the popular Blue Cross and Blue Shield standard-option plan for federal workers paid all drug costs for the 800,000 federal retirees enrolled in Medicare Part B - the optional coverage that most retirees buy for the fees that Medicare Part A doesn't cover.

In January, as an alternative to an overall increase in premiums, the health plan started charging these retirees a 20 percent co-payment on prescription drugs bought at a retail pharmacy. The retires still could get free medicine from the health plan's mail-order service, operated by Merck-Medco Managed Care Inc. in several locations around the nation.

Faced with such a choice, thousands of retirees abondoned drugstores for free - but slower - mail-order service. The mail-order volume ballooned from 95,000 prescriptions in December to more than 235,000 in January, about 45,000 more than Blue Cross had anticipated, a Blue Cross official said yesterday.

The load apparently was too much for Merck-Medco.

Phil Schneider, a spokesman for the retail pharmacy chains, said he has heard many complaints lately from his members as well as from retirees.

One Pennsylvania pharmacist was asked to redo a prescription after the mail-order company mistakenly dispensed a thyroid medicine at 10 times the prescribed dosage, Mr. …