Rx Express — Carla Coco Boutte — Santa Barbara, CA

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Three years ago, Carla Coco Boutte hit rock bottom. Her employer of 25 years had cut her loose just as she was about to qualify for her pension. She had serious health problems. She had no job, no money, no medical coverage. "I had nothing," she says.

But Carla pulled herself up, and today she is on the road to a college degree and, eventually, a career as a lawyer. She is struggling with tuition and other college expenses, but she is making it. The one anchor that still weights her down: the cost of prescription drugs.

As a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, UCSB, Carla, 51, has some coverage. But it caps at $2,000. She has a slew of health problems, and passed the $2,000 mark halfway through the academic year. Now she has to pay out-of-pocket. Until the plan kicks in again in September, Carla has to pay full price for such medications as Lipitor, Paxil and half a dozen others.

That is why she is climbing aboard the Rx Express. She hopes to stock up on enough medications to get her through this year, and next. "I go through the $2,000 like it’s nothing," she says.

If she hangs on, Carla will be able to fulfill a dream that began more than three decades ago: completing college and beyond. Born in Los Angeles, she first attended UCSB in the early 1970s, majoring in psychology. She left in 1973, however, and took a job with American Airlines.

Carla worked as an operations agent for 25 years. Then, one day in 1997, she yanked on a piece of heavy equipment and it broke off in her hand. It damaged her back. She went on workers comp. Carla was off for months, but finally returned to the airline in a job that paid half as much but allowed her to sit down, thus sparing her back.

For health coverage, she moved from workers comp to Kaiser. But five months after she returned to work, the airline fired her. It was a blow; she had worked there for 25 years. She thinks two factors went into her dismissal. One is race; Carla is African-American. The other is money. "I was just costing them too much," she says.

That’s when she began to scrape bottom. She couldn’t find a job. In addition to her back, "I began to have all kinds of health problems." She had a breast cancer scare. There was an ovarian tumor. She underwent two surgeries. And, as will happen with someone in such dire straits, she suffered agonizing depression.

Carla survived through the kindness of strangers and the government safety net. Catholic Charities helped, as did social service programs. She ended up getting health care from the county. Eventually she began to receive disability.

The state Department of Rehabilitation set up Carla with a full program that will allow her to go to law school. She is now a junior at UCSB.

But she has to keep the pain at bay during these years, and keep a grip on her other health problems. When medications become prohibitively expensive, it affects every other part of your life.

When Carla does get her law degree, she knows how she is going to use it: To fight for civil rights, or to fight for health care reform. "I am so sick and tired," she says, "of people being taken advantage of."

Consumer Watchdog
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