Marshel Davis of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock says a hot line his class established tracked existing discounts that saved 700 Arkansas seniors a total of $100,000.
It started last fall, when Davis suggested a few of his students use their Internet skills to help elderly family members and friends find discount drug programs — and complete their class projects at the same time.
In January, they set up a hot line, the Prescription Assistance Line for Seniors, PALS. Without a lick of advertising, the number of applicants grew to 350 in two months and doubled to 700 over four months.
Janea Hightower, a senior from the Little Rock suburb of Jacksonville, jumped at the chance to help her family and neighbors when Davis suggested the hot line.
"After telling a few more seniors ... about it, the word began to spread and now the phones are ringing off the hook," she said.
The three-person PALS staff helps participants apply for programs like pharmaceutical company discount cards, check on whether they've received the medications and renew their program applications.
Davis, Hightower and another student, Teresa Anders, of El Dorado, staff the hot line 8½ hours a day and spend an average of three hours helping each participant.
Davis said they have been able to find $150 in savings for the average participant — savings that many seniors, particularly those in rural states like Arkansas, are never aware of because many seniors don't access the Internet.
PALS is linked to three major discount card programs through the Volunteers in Health Care program, a nonprofit resource for health-care providers. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s pharmacies and others have similar discount services, but they are tied to contracts with individual pharmaceutical companies, which limits their options, he said.
Some Arkansas seniors say they were wary of PALS' free help and still don't understand where the savings are coming from, but are thankful nonetheless.
"I sent for something in the AARP Magazine, and the next thing I knew, Mr. Davis called me," said 75-year-old Marie Dille, of Sherwood. "It's been such a godsend for me, that I had to tell my friends."
One of those friends is her Sunday school classmate, 76-year-old Jean Naramore, of North Little Rock. The widow is on a fixed income, but needs to take pills every day for arthritis, thyroid, heartburn, hormonal imbalance, depression and heart and lung problems.
She spent $200 every month on her heartburn and depression medication alone. PALS helped her get 30-day supplies of each for free.
"I wasn't fortunate enough to have prescription drug coverage when I retired," she said. "When I first heard about this from Marie, I thought, 'Congress can't do anything; how do you think you could?' But if Congress would just listen and see this, they could get a program like this for everyone."
Davis said PALS could be a model for local or state-based programs, but nothing like that has happened because prescription drug coverage has become a "political football" for legislators.
"I would hope we could shut down tomorrow if Congress came up with some kind of help, but the plans they are considering now will do more harm than good," he said, referring to competing House and Senate bills that want to increase benefits for seniors but could privatize Medicare.
"They don't seem to realize that it depends on whether people know how to access the discounts. Some dinky $200 or $600 credit a year won't help."
Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry, the only licensed pharmacist in Congress, applauded the students' efforts and agreed that the current Medicare drug coverage could do more harm than good. He is one of 17 members of Congress on a committee charged with consolidating the House and Senate bills.
"It will be better not to have a bill than to have a bad bill," he said. "If we don't have price controls, it will be like taking half off a $100 shotgun, but marking it up to $250 first."
Newman McGee, chairman of the Health Sciences Department at the university, said PALS can't meet the demand without outside funding. The department has already purchased new computers and spends more than $2,000 a month on student wages and postage.
"We'd like to see someone jump in with us because this could be very big," McGee said. "We have (another doctor) looking for grants, but we've really been holding the elephant's tail to keep him off the freeway. We're just flabbergasted to find out that these people are not being served at this level."