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  • Earle Levenstein

Off the Charts

Cartoon illustration of a bearded man holding a placard that reads "Say Goodbye" as he walks barefoot. Sketch by Earle Levenstein.Cartoon illustration of a bearded man holding a placard that reads "Say Goodbye" as he walks barefoot. Sketch by Earle Levenstein.

Just start with the cost of teeth.

I mean, between cavities, braces, extractions, cleaning, mouthwashes and any recent development I've overlooked, it's enough to keep the household budget dancing.

Fact is, I have an electric toothbrush that's as powerful as those power sanders that clean floors. I brush thoroughly twice a day; I use an antiseptic mouthwash; and if that's not enough for any dentist, I say the hell with it.

It's just teeth.

A big "So what?"

Still, there's the rest of my body. Something doesn't feel right, look right; it's serious stuff; no fooling around. Life and death.

It's something or it's nothing.

I mean, I can live without my teeth; can't say that for the rest. What needs to be done, has to be done.

Then the question becomes, "How will I pay for it?"

Scary, but that's the story.

There's no free ride, no other option; crippling is what it is. Crippling. And as the years pass, it doesn't seem to get any better.

Protection?

I have Medicare Part A and Part B; and because Medicare leaves a lot uncovered, I also have Medigap Plan J. Cost increases a little with each year—they play the odds—and while that doesn't take care of most stuff, it doesn't mean a free ride. I know what it is and what I have to pay and that's that.

At the same time, I've been blessed with good health: no major events, only minor stuff; the machinery keeps working. But importantly, the costs are predictable.

Plus—just have to admit—I'm a nutjob. My brain is in business for itself.

Positive side is a non-stop creative imagination: years of writing, drawing; weird thoughts; lightbulb-class ideas; getting paid for lots of stuff; just keeps rolling; knock on wood.

At the same time, I have to keep track of a lifetime of emotional material piled high; it's a real drain and needs pretty regular attention.

Not complaining; it's just a fact.

So, anyway; given that I only have to take a couple of prescription drugs and Medigap pays most—I think—of that and given that my quarterly payment to them is well over a thousand dollars, I'd venture to bet—I add and subtract; that's about it—I'm a profitable customer.

What I have in Medigap, I think, is a sort of insurance policy. If I needed a lot more help, I wouldn't nosedive down the financial tubes.

As for drug pricing, it's a different world.

Back when I was in advertising, there were FDA rules, restrictions, and limitations on claims for medications.

Top of the list: A prescription drug could absolutely not be advertised directly to the general public. Period.

Your physician would prescribe it, you'd buy it at your pharmacy, and the printed warnings would remind you of dosage limitations, potential side effects or symptoms.

Explanations and limitations,

Cross at the green, not in between.

Rules are rules.

Olden days.

But how we've grown, eh?

FDA has changed; it sees drugs a little differently now.

I mean, they can't always be a bunch of meanies; not letting prescription drug people say a word to a TV audience, right?

So the FDA now says: "OK; here's the deal: you can go ahead and advertise your drugs to the folks sitting there, watching their TVs; but—big but—you have to give them all the warnings, risks, dangers, the What ifs? that come with the medication they're about to take."

Those aren't jelly beans, you know? They're serious drugs.

Well, that restriction is a real challenge to prescription drug folks, particularly in TV commercials. I mean, thirty seconds isn't a lot of time to warn anybody about anything.

Particularly since TV commercials are picture stories. Actors, maybe a cartoon character; a funny scene, with some music that sets the tone.

There's a brief message, they show us the product and say a couple of words.

Like a little movie: picture and words telling the same story. Right?

Well, not with prescription drug TV ads.

What you watch on the screen—usually something fun, light hearted, like a guy playing with his dog, his daughter laughing— is totally different from the voice you're hearing, racing through the FDA-required information about the drug itself.

Simultaneously.

So, how's it work out?

Well, maybe something like this: An elderly man is smiling, playing with his grandchildren, running around with them, playing tag; they're laughing and he's rolling around on the grass; now there's a puppy joining them, and it ends with a fullscreen shot of a bottle or box, and a name which seems to be what's producing all the fun back there on the lawn.

But wait, there at the bottom of the screen! Words, pretty small; you have to read them fast. Plus, at the same time, we hear a voice zipping along at a blistering pace, reading the words. It's sped up, jamming everything into a matter of seconds, and maybe you catch a word here and there, like "call your doctor if you" something or other, which is pretty much it.

But unless you were taking notes or recording the machine-gun-paced monologue and replayed it a few times, it's the joy-filled scene —that elderly man, obviously in the prime of rebirth, cavorting about and the picture of the product that—quite obviously—was what had that man dancing.

Slim chance the blizzard of FDA-required warnings are remembered.

What's to complain about?

Everything's there, isn't it?

No way.

What you're seeing is someone who's been cured of whatever it was that made him or her the wreck he or she was; and what you're hearing—if you listen—is a rat-a-tat-tat of warnings about what this guy took.

Lost in the shuffle?

Prescription drugs are serious. Might even be life or death. Brilliant creations, discoveries. Don't work every time. But sure have the potential for miracles.

Hard to figure out how this all came to be; carefully following the rules, but not telling the whole story—what you're seeing and what you're hearing—at one time.

The important piece is the money involved.

Viewers ask their physicians about the drug; sales zoom. With all that exposure, you'd think prices would fall, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Patents have a lot to say. We pay out the nose for every drug we need to take.

Argument is, it takes years of research and zillions of dollars to create those incredible drugs—miracles really—and basically, how lucky we all are to have them working 24 hours a day—if not more—to fight off the bad guys and keep us healthy.

And so it goes.

No matter that our drug prices here in the good old U.S. of A. are stratospheric compared to those produced and distributed in every single country in Europe.

What's it all about, Alfy?

Seems to me to be about the long green, baby; bucks, it's all about bucks.

Maybe I just take things too seriously.

I already shout at the TV when I see one of those prescription drug ads; it drives me nuts.

Obsessing; losing sleep.

Gotta get a grip.

I mean, we're talking about a TV ad for God's sake.

Gotta be a better way.

But how?

Wait a minute.

How about I make one of those placards—The End Is Near! Save Yourself!—and I grow a beard and I wear the placard and I march up and down the block, all over the country, mile after mile; just marching.

Big country.

Spread the word.

The End Is Near.

Yeah.

Ridiculous.

Who would even joke about doing something like that?

Well...

Hmmm.

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