A local senior discusses her struggle to keep up with out-of-pocket healthcare costs.
In October 2018, Chandler resident Christine Castillo faced a dilemma many other retirees find themselves in. The company she worked for since retiring from a state job in 2007 had no plans of renewing her work contract, so she had no choice but to go into full retirement.
As a result, the then 71-year-old found herself struggling to balance her health and household expenses due to high healthcare costs.
Despite having one of the nation’s largest number of seniors, Arizona is among one of the worst and ranks 31st in the nation of healthcare for seniors. Castillo said she knows her story is not unique, and almost three million Arizona seniors are at risk with President Donald Trump’s proposals to gut Medicare and Medicaid.
“Making retirement income and social security stretch for the full month is difficult,” Castillo said. “First thing that had to be cut were my meds for diabetes, high cholesterol, allergies, and high blood pressure.”
Castillo also couldn’t keep to the prescribed diet established to maintain her type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, turning instead to less expensive and processed foods that could feed her entire family. For approximately 18 years, she’s been the sole provider and matriarch of her “grandfamily,” and her grandchildren are part of the more than 198,000 Arizona children being raised by grandparents.
“The only reason I had to work past retirement was because I had to raise six grandchildren, and the cost of living keeps going up,” said Castillo.
With her retirement from the State of Arizona and Medicare deducted automatically from her check, as well as working for more than a decade after retirement, Castillo managed her healthcare costs and family, even if money was a little tight at times. However, after losing the extra income, she’s struggling to keep afloat.
The Arizona native said visiting her regular doctor is not as costly, but the cost for visiting a specialist is much higher. She currently sees eight specialists. To visit each one once, she would have to pay $280. Normally, she needs more than one visit, so that price increases the more appointments she has.
Castillo also has to take 16 daily medications, and the highest cost for one of them is $120 per prescription monthly.
“The total cost for prescriptions last year, out of pocket, was several thousand,” she said.
Because of her pre-existing conditions, Castillo emphasized she won’t take a chance and switch Medicare plans for fear of not getting the proper care. However, because of the high costs, she stopped refilling several prescriptions after she stopped working.
“I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t,” she said. “After my contract was not renewed, I had to make a choice between a roof over our heads and eating, or my medical care and meds.”
Within six months, her health faltered and Castillo’s PCP reached out to her concerned because she had not requested refills. The doctor worked with Castillo to change some of the more expensive medications, and to refer her to a diabetic specialist and nutritionist to help get her back on track.
Although that’s the case, Castillo said, “I’m still struggling to make ends meet and get what I need. Higher prices for healthcare and prescriptions will be an ongoing problem for me.”
As an avid voter, Castillo said she’s paying attention to candidates running in the 2020 election who she feels will fight for seniors like herself.
With Arizona being one of 20 states fighting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and with proposed cuts to Medicare of $554 billion over 10 years by President Trump, Castillo said she worries about continuing rising medical costs that will continue to negatively affect her health, finances, and family.
Last Thursday, Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz), who will face Democratic contender Mark Kelly and is slated as an “endangered” candidate after losing to Sen. Kirsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) in 2018, claimed in a phone Town Hall meeting that she is the one to champion healthcare for Arizonans and seniors.
According to a press release posted on McSally’s official page, over 12,600 participated in the event out of over 87,900 residents who were invited to participate. Thirteen people spoke live to McSally, some of whom questioned her about medical and prescription costs under Medicare.
In a phone poll initiated by McSally’s team during the event, 48% of seniors said they have had to leave prescriptions at the pharmacy because of price, while 52% said they never had that experience.
“That is unacceptable,” McSally said.
She told her listeners that there are many “bipartisan” initiatives to fight this issue.
She added that pharmaceutical companies have life-saving breakthrough drugs, and to research and develop them, they have a patent protection. But when the patent expires, many companies cheat in one way or another using loopholes. They pay off or buy companies to avoid competition when getting a generic drug on the market. McSally said they figure out ways to finagle or cheat their patent and box out competition to keep prices up.
“This has got to stop,” she said. “This is a bipartisan agreement. We need to bring in competition.”
However, McSally supports repealing the Affordable Care Act, which experts say would result in pharmaceutical companies profiting $2.8 billion in tax cuts and an “age tax” for Americans over 50.
As an informed voter, Castillo finds this worrisome.
“McSally has never voted for any legislation that would help lower medical insurance or prescription medicine,” she said. “Her claims to having done so can be proved to be a lie. She is looking for votes and will say the key words and phrases people want to hear. If researched, voters can get the truth.”
For the sake of her family and her health, Castillo said truth matters more than ever in 2020, and she hopes relief will come to seniors like herself who are struggling with high healthcare costs and making ends meet in retirement.