By: Denise Sherman
Staff Writer

ZEBULON-- Deborah Wells knows firsthand of the health-care crisis in America.

She doesn't have health insurance and has to pay $80 each time she refills her medicine prescription for high cholesterol.

"I'm sure if you talk to people in this area — in a small rural town — you're going to find a lot more hardships," she said while waiting for her prescription to be filled at Eckerd Drugs on Arendell Avenue.

Wells is one of the people United Networks of America might be able to help.

The for-profit company that earns its money from contracts with pharmaceutical companies has issued a new drug card that saves on average of 33 percent on each prescription filled, said Daniel Dietrich, program director for UNA.

UNA has partnered with the nonprofit Health Access of America, which has an office in Raleigh, to get the word out about the cards which can be downloaded off their Web site at www.northcarolinadrugcard.com

That's welcome news to James Todd, of Zebulon, who must pay for his own pain medicine because he is on disability.

"I'm right next door to juggling bills," he said. "I sure would like to have some coverage."

That's what Health Access of America sees as its mission, said Susan Everett, regional coordinator.

"Health Access of America is a broad-based partnership of national and local organizations who educate and inform the uninsured, the media and the public at large about affordable health care option," Everett said.

They work places like health fairs, college campuses, booths at malls and blood drives.

Health Access of America recently conducted a pilot project in Wake and Johnston counties to help spread the word about the state's Health Choice program which provides health insurance to children without it.

It also works with private organizations like United Networks of America.

Dietrich said that the costs of discounts from this program are borne by pharmaceutical companies and PMBs, which brokers reimbursement costs.

That doesn't stop pharmacists from being suspicious since so many of the discount cards bleed the local pharmacist, said Tadd Adams at Zebulon Drug Co.

"Without further information it's hard to make an assessment," said Adams. "I don't want to sound negative, but I've seen too many cards come out that (line) the pockets of the brokers."

Fred Eckel, executive director of the N.C. Association of Pharmacists, was also cautious.

"I'm afraid that a lot of pharmacists are going to be hesitant to see this as a beneficial advantage to them or their patients." he said. "They may have a good network and it may work. Clearly there's need."

Eckel also said a universal card would work better than scads of cards.

The program does have takers. Already, Eckerd's, Walgreens, Kroger, Albertson's, Target, Brookshire Brothers and Costco pharmacies as well as other chain and independent pharmacies honor UNA's card.

Independent pharmacies wanting to join can call 1-877-459-8475.

"The free Rx program has brought almost $66,000,000 in prescription savings to members around the country in the short history of the program with calendar year savings for 2007 projected to approach $100,000,000," said Brian Oliver, executive vice president of UNA.

It not only covers those without insurance, but those who have gaps within their insurance coverage, Dietrich said.

Some pet medications are also available. The program is open to every resident in the state.

"Anything like that – we accept it," said Meredith Smith, a pharmacist at Eckerd's. "I'd have to do more research to say how good it is."

But Sandra Porter, of Zebulon, isn't waiting. She's ready to tell her sister.

"She doesn't have any insurance," she said. "She probably has to put another bill aside just to get her medicine."