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Revered Doctor Cheryl Elliott, framed by two pharmacy students in white coats, sits at a table with a yellow folder and discusses her prescription drug plan. Photo by Chloe Lessard.

Student-run mobile Medicare clinic helps seniors manage medications

on November 23, 2015

When Medicare recipient Richard Figueroa arrived at Oakland’s Allen Temple Baptist Church on Saturday, second-year pharmacy student Jason Wang stepped up to guide him through a crowd to a table where fellow volunteers from the University of the Pacific School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences awaited to discuss health plan choices and review his medications.  

Figueroa unzipped a small plastic bag neatly containing prescription bottles, placing the medications one-by-one onto the table for review. His particular Medicare plan had been discontinued, he said, and he was unsure which one to select next. Second-year student Elena Lenkova nodded understandingly across from him. Students worked in teams: one researching the most appropriate plan as the other performed a medication review.

Figueroa was just one of 1,335 patients who attended 13 free mobile Medicare clinics staffed by volunteer pharmacists and students throughout Northern California during this fall’s Medicare Annual Election Period. This year’s open enrollment period, a time when Medicare beneficiaries can change their prescription drug plans, opened October 15 and will close December 7. The mobile clinics focused on Medicare Part D, also known as Medicare Prescription Drug Plans. Phone consultations were offered for those who couldn’t attend their appointments in person.

Saturday’s event, the last of the series of fall clinics, also featured a health fair with screening services such as those for bone density, cholesterol, dental health and blood pressure.

At the Oakland church, student volunteers raised colored cards—red, blue, white, yellow— alerting other volunteers to come help with medication management and additional services such as flu shots or blood pressure checks. Along with reviewing their Medicare Part D Plans, volunteers suggested the most cost-effective way to manage their medications, and reviewed each patient’s prescriptions to prevent harmful drug interactions.

Pharmacy students in white coats chatted softly at the event’s registration desk as they waited to take patients. After checking in, visitors were given a Pacific Healthcare Passport, a small card to be carried from station to station. On the card, volunteers recorded information such as screening results or a flu shot, so the patient could share the record with their health care provider.

“In the nine years we’ve been doing this, we found that up to nine out of ten Medicare beneficiaries who we assist can actually save money on their drug plan costs,” said the event’s founder, pharmacist Rajul Patel. “And that’s pretty substantial when you consider most of these individuals are seniors, and most seniors have fixed income and limited resources.”  Patel said the program has saved seniors about $3.3 million in prescription drug costs.

Medicare beneficiaries have had over 40 plans to choose from this period—each with a different formulary, or list of medications covered, and a different cost structure. The process can be confusing for seniors, who might be automatically enrolled into plans outside of their budgets or into ones that do not cover the specific prescriptions they receive.

The University of the Pacific students take a class on Medicare over the summer and fall semester, then work at these clinics to apply their knowledge. Students are required to participate in eight events but can earn an honors cord at graduation if they assist at ten or more.

“It’s a really nice experience—it’s really difficult, but it’s worth every second,” second-year student Janet Yoon said. “When beneficiaries come in, and you save them thousands of dollars or even a few hundred, it’s really worth it. You see how grateful they are, and this can either make or break them for next year.”

While lectures are important for the students, nothing can replace community experience and direct patient care, Patel said.

Students also assisted the Reverend Doctor Cheryl Elliott, an Allen Temple community member who had heard about the event through the church bulletin and was also invited by a friend. She found the experience helpful, especially the documentation of her medication, and wished she had known more about the event so she could have told her friends.

“Once I got in, I saw how organized and concentrated it is. It’s not just asking you peripheral questions, but it’s actually asking relevant questions that are very in-depth,” Elliott said.

Patel said that this year featured some new testing services.  “We added additional screening services specifically focusing on mental health, so we have depression screening, anxiety screening, memory decline, and also sleep disorders, which is a huge issue for the elderly,” he said. The program also started making personal medication records this year that can be translated into 18 languages.

Representatives of the state Health Insurance Counseling & Advocacy Program (HICAP), Medicare and the Social Security Administration were also on hand to answer questions. According to HICAP, Medicare now recommends that seniors reevaluate their plans each year.

After a long session of parsing through information about premiums and prescriptions, Lenkova led Figueroa back towards the health fair once they had settled upon a new plan. When asked whether he would come back next year, Figueroa responded, “Absolutely.”

For additional questions about Medicare and the Part D plan, HICAP is available at 1-800-434-0222. The University of the Pacific also offers a Medicare Help Hotline at (209) 946-7728.

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