Senior citizen Louisette Lipstadt of Conway, N.H., needed a prescription that cost more than $200 a month.

“That’s a lot of money. I can’t afford it,” said Lipstadt, who receives Social Security.

She could have applied for assistance from a drug company, “but I don’t understand all this. I get all shook up,” Lipstadt said.

“My doctor told me to contact this lady. I did. She was fantastic. She said, ‘Leave it to me.’ She took care of it.”

Lipstadt called Karen Mentus, prescription assistance coordinator at Bridgton Hospital. Mentus got Lipstadt a free prescription for Prevacid, a medicine for acid reflux.

Help is available for finding affordable prescription drugs, but it can mean navigating dozens of complicated programs.

That’s where Mentus, and Lynn Poulin of St. Mary’s Health System, come in.

They know how to find less expensive – and sometimes free – prescriptions, often from drug companies, for patients whose doctors are affiliated with those hospitals.

As prescription assistance coordinators, Poulin and Mentus help people get affordable prescriptions through a maze of programs: MaineCare, Maine Rx and Medicare, among other programs.

An individual’s best choice could be generic drugs for $4 a month from one of several retail pharmacies.

Mentus and Poulin say patient assistance programs are a common tool, but qualifying requires a lot of paperwork.

Through PAPs, drug companies give medicine to those with low to middle incomes: about $20,800 for a household of one; $28,000 for a household of two: $35,200 for a household of three.

Among the prescriptions Poulin has found for her patients, mostly at no cost, are:

• Advair, an inhaler that retails for about $200 a month.

• Lipitor, a high-cholesterol medicine that retails for about $98 a month.

• Diabetes kits to monitor blood sugar levels, which retail for about $90 a month.

• Wellbutrin, an antidepressant that retails for about $80 a month.

• Chantix, medicine to help quit smoking, which retails for about $145 a month.

To qualify, applicants can’t have drug coverage, although those on Medicare sometimes qualify because Medicare’s prescription coverage is limited.

Each drug company has a different income requirement, and each prescription requires a separate application. Patients have to provide proof of income with the applications.

Prescription assistance is offered for only three months, or one year, at a time. Patients have to reapply. Poulin helps her clients re-apply so they don’t go without. If a patient doesn’t qualify, Poulin and Mentus look for another program that can help.

Bridgton and St. Mary’s hospital officials estimate that each program saves patients $2 million a year.

Not all hospitals have prescription assistance coordinators, said Martha Morrison of MedHelp Maine, a small nonprofit company trying to develop more prescription assistance programs.

“There’s a big, unmet need,” Morrison said. “Everybody needs to have it in Maine.”

In the tough economy, more people are getting prescriptions but not filling them because of cost, she said. “They’re struggling to put food on the table, keep a roof over their head.”

MedHelp Maine worked with Bridgton Hospital get their prescription assistance coordinator. Morrison talked to officials in Lewiston and other communities about getting more coordinators. Central Maine Medical Center considered it but did not have staff for the program, said spokesman Randall Dustin. CMMC’s caseworkers help patients get medicine and enlists the expertise of SeniorsPlus, he said.

A recent increase in layoffs is leaving more people in need of help, said Dr. Rich Sagall, who formerly practiced in Bangor and now is president of in Massachusetts.

His Web site offers information on thousands of prescription programs, mostly for the working poor, uninsured or under insured. Last year, received 10,000 visitors a day. In January 2009 that number climbed to 12,000 a day.

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