Auburn's Harrison School of Pharmacy leads program to help Alabama Medicare patients

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A researcher in the Harrison School of Pharmacy at Auburn University is launching a new program to help pharmacists assist Alabama Medicare patients who can't afford their medications.

Salisa Westrick, an associate professor in the Department of Health Outcomes Research and Policy, said estimates show more than 4,000 elderly and disabled people in Lee County alone are likely eligible for Medicare subsidy programs, but are not enrolled and probably struggle to pay for their medications. The issue is spread around the state, as an estimated 1,400 people in Hoover are eligible and another 800 in Phenix City.

These assistance programs include the Medicare Savings Program, Low-Income Subsidy and SenioRx.

"We have come to realize there are many Medicare patients who qualify for subsidy programs, but aren't enrolled," Westrick said. "More than likely, they aren't enrolled because they don't know these programs exist."

To help ensure this population knows about these programs, the Harrison School of Pharmacy is reaching out to pharmacists and pharmacies to join the Certified Aging Resource Educated Specialists, or CARES, Pharmacy Network. The idea for the network developed from a Medicare outreach project between the school and the Alabama Department of Senior Services. The network is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.

For the past four years, pharmacy students have been trained to help Medicare patients decide which Medicare plan best fits their needs. It was during these sessions that Westrick realized there was another need the school could help meet.

The CARES training program, launched earlier this year, provides three hours of continuing education training for pharmacists and technicians. A community pharmacy that employs at least one trained pharmacist can participate in the CARES Pharmacy Network. Network pharmacists will identify customers who could potentially qualify for Medicare subsides.

"Because many people on Medicare don't know these programs exist for them, they may be experiencing high premiums and high out-of-pocket costs for their medications," said Westrick. "They may not buy their medications because of the cost. When they have to pay a co-pay of $50 for each brand name medication or when they fall into the coverage gap, it becomes unaffordable for many patients."

Westrick said the training, which is free and offered online, educates pharmacists and technicians to assist customers who may qualify for assistance. Participating pharmacists will not be asked to screen customers, but rather identify and refer them to Aging and Disability Resource Centers, where they will be screened for eligibility. Aging and Disability Resource Centers will then assist qualified individuals with the application process.

"Aging and Disability Resource Centers are unbiased and their goal is to help patients find subsidy programs for which they qualify while continuing to receive services at their pharmacy," she added.

The CARES Pharmacy Network currently has nine member pharmacies in Alabama, including the Opelika Kroger and the Walmart Neighborhood Market on East University Drive in Auburn.

Pharmacists interested in joining the network and receiving the free training can visit or contact Westrick at 334-844-8314.

"Awareness is the key," said Westrick. "I believe pharmacists are an integral part of patient care. Through this program, pharmacists help increase patient awareness of subsidy programs and refer them to the agency that can help them enroll in these programs."

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.