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Florence man with COPD cannot afford prescription drugs, dies

By ED PILOLLA

Staff writer

Knickknacks of clowns and dolphins decorate the Sumners’ bright blue home on Fifth St. in Florence. Gary liked clowns; Sharon liked dolphins.

“Gary made me a promise years ago, to see the dolphins,” Sharon said. “And we did.”

They had been married 36 years when Gary died Thursday in his home. Sharon wonders what other adventures they might have taken together if only they had enough money for Gary’s prescription medication over the last year.

Sumner had been prescribed to take a total of 13 medications, including four for high blood pressure after he had been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which causes breathing difficulty and becomes worse over time.

Sharon said her husband had not taken his prescription medication “in a while.” A family friend said it had been nearly a year since he took his meds. The only medication Sumner, a diabetic, was taking at the time of his death was insulin.

“He went out and bought me a pack of cigarettes, came in, said something to me and then sat down,” Sharon Sumner said. “Then he started making a noise I can’t even describe.”

Paramedics arrived at Sumner’s house and moved him from a chair to the floor where they intubated him so he could breathe. They performed CPR and shocked him. Sumner was pronounced dead at St. Luke Hospital.

Sumner was in the process of reapplying for disability status with the federal government after his first application was denied, his wife said.

Sumner also failed to obtain affordable health insurance through a variety of outlets — and had mailed off another health insurance application the morning of his death, Sharon said. He also struck out at the Kansas Health Insurance Marketplace, which offers higher premiums than other states that elected to participate in the federal expansion of Medicaid through Obamacare two years ago, said a friend and neighbor of the Sumners who helped Gary while he was ill.

“He couldn’t get no medical help or anybody to help him with medicine or physicians,” said the neighbor, who declined to give her name. “I was just a friend trying to help him out.”

The neighbor described Sumner as a “great guy.”

“He had a good attitude. He was a happy guy. He was cool to be around, friendly,” the neighbor said. “He tried not to let his situation get to him, especially in front in Sharon. He didn’t want her to worry.”

Sumner, originally from Massachusetts, worked as a fabricator at Agco Corp. in Hesston for 11 years. His health problems began after he was laid off from his job five years ago and lost his Blue Cross-Blue Shield insurance coverage, Sharon Sumner said.

He looked for work but could not find any, so Sharon picked up another couple of jobs.

“Oh man, that made him mad that I was working two to three jobs,” Sharon said. “He said there’s no way you are going to do that.”

But Sharon worked the jobs until she lost so much weight she had to scale back. She now works 30-35 hours a week as the night cook at Westview Nursing Center in Peabody, making $9.07 an hour. She said her wages are currently being garnished to pay a $4,700 bill to Newton Medical Center from when Gary saw a heart specialist.

Sumner had outstanding medical bills with Newton as well as St. Luke Hospital, according to court records.

Gayla Ratzlaff, coordinator for Marion County department on Aging, said an applicant can qualify for a low-income subsidy to help with prescription medication payments if he is at least 65 and enrolled in Medicare, or legally disabled.

If the applicant does not qualify for the low-income subsidy, many drug companies offer reduced costs, Ratzlaff said.

“Our local pharmacies, lots of times they’ll help them out,” Ratzlaff said. “Physicians will also.”

Diedre Serene, county health department administrator, said she recently met with a low-income couple who, like the Sumners, could not afford a particular prescription medication and so they were not purchasing it.

“It does happen,” Serene said. “We do have some prescription cards at the health department that will cut costs on prescriptions in some of the larger, chain pharmacies.”

Paying for medical bills and medication remain the most urgent financial issues Americans face, according to a 2012 Consumer Reports survey. Results showed that 45 percent of those without health insurance for prescriptions said they had not filled at least one within the previous year because of the cost.

About the time he was diagnosed with COPD four years ago, Gary made good on his promise. The Sumners took a vacation to see the dolphins. They traveled to Orlando, Florida where they visited Sea World. Then they visited Graceland.

“That was the other promise he made me, that we would see Graceland,” Sharon said. “He was my best friend, that’s for sure.”

Last modified Feb. 11, 2015

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