Carol and Kenneth Dingee used to travel through Yuma to Los Algodones, Mexico, for the prescription drugs they can't afford in the United States. Then the Mesa couple became hobbled by age and disabilities.
Carol's fractured tailbone made sitting in the car for the 10-hour trip almost unbearable, and her cane provided little help walking across the border with severe degenerative arthritis in her knees. Kenneth, 73, would walk slowly beside her, wary of back problems.
Today they rely on family members to get their drugs from Mexico. They have no other choice.
"If Mexico wasn't an option . . . we'd almost have to decide between gas for vehicles and food, and whether to get medicine," said Carol, 55. "We would be in dire straits."
Desperate for cheaper medicines, senior citizens like the Dingees are watching the presidential candidates closely for their solutions to skyrocketing prescription drug prices. For them, no issue is more important. Even the war in Iraq takes a back seat to drug affordability.
Yet President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry have not talked much about what they would do to rein in runaway drug prices, a situation that has frustrated seniors contacted by the Tribune.
"I wished that I could be there and look at them and say ‘Would you two shut up sniping at each other and start getting to the issues?’ " Carol said of the first debate on Sept. 30, which focused on national security and the invasion of Iraq. "Drug prices are a real high priority."
Seniors said they are fed up with a climate that seems to foster pharmaceutical company profits instead of protecting the public from exorbitant drug prices. Many say they are in favor of Kerry's prescription drug plan because it seems tougher on pharmaceutical companies.
"I don't think what the (Bush) administration is proposing is adequate," said Wendell Wilson, 57, of Queen Creek. "They're not doing anything to keep costs down. They're making it impossible to negotiate prices down."
The Bush campaign points to Medicare legislation approved last year that will for the first time provide drug coverage for seniors. The law, however, prohibits the federal government from negotiating prices with pharmaceutical companies.
Kerry's plan would provide that negotiating ability. His plan would also bolster efforts to obtain prescription drugs from Canada, where government price controls require pharmaceutical companies sell their drugs at lower cost.
Last week in the second presidential debate, Bush cited safety concerns in opening up the border to imported medications. Drug companies oppose importation and federal government "interference" in the Medicare prescription drug law, saying they would jeopardize investment in research and development.
"It's not negotiation, it's government setting price controls. That will undermine the industry and stifle research and development of new medications," said Court Rosen, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association. "We're working to see that the Medicare law is adequate and provides the medications seniors need at prices they can afford."
Downward pressure on prices will occur once the Medicare law takes effect in 2006, when seniors can choose from among health plans that will be serving millions of members, Rosen said. Because health plans will be so large, they will be able to negotiate lower prices.
But some seniors said they don't trust that drug prices will go down without the federal government stepping in. The new Medicare drug discount card, for example, hasn't provided the savings some of them were anticipating. Many prescriptions are still cheaper when purchased in Mexico or Canada.
Drug companies should be allowed to make a decent profit, but it should be reasonable, said Wilson, referring to massive earnings by some pharmaceutical manufacturers. "We're talking about health care. We're talking about people's lives. It's not like they're making a big profit on an automobile or a big screen TV."
AARP supported the Medicare prescription drug bill but is now pushing for improvements, including legalization of drug importation from Canada and Medicare drug price negotiation by the federal government.
"Health care and issues around health care, Medicare and prescription drugs has always been the No. 1 issue" for seniors, said David Mitchell, AARP's state director. "No matter who the candidate is or whoever is in power, these are the issues we'll be pushing hard for in the coming four years."
Seniors said they are also concerned about safeguarding Social Security benefits, which are projected to run out in the near future. Seniors and AARP said they are leery of plans by the Bush campaign to privatize Social Security benefits. Kerry's campaign has not specifically outlined a solution, except to promise not to raise Social Security taxes or cut benefits.
Gene Hershman, 81, of Apache Junction, said he'll support the candidate who seems like he will actually do what he promises. In the meantime, Hershman said he is waiting for cooler weather so he can make another "drug run" to Mexico.
"The older you are, the more important (affording prescription drugs) gets," he said.