Md. Senate OKs bill on health care

Plan would expand aid to seniors, poor for prescription drugs

72,000 more could benefit

Measure faces likely changes as House studies fund sources

March 21, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Responding to a "crisis" created by the rising cost of prescription drugs, the state Senate unanimously approved a bill yesterday that would earmark $20 million to expand programs offering free or discounted medications to senior citizens and the poor.

Supporters said the legislation would allow the subsidy programs, which benefit fewer than 50,000 Marylanders now, to reach an additional 72,000 who lack prescription drug coverage.

"We have a crisis in dealing with prescription drugs in this country," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat and a sponsor of the bill. He called the measure "a short-term approach in trying to assist as many people as we can."

The Senate's plan will ultimately have to be squared with the package the House endorses. That won't be easy, because the House is studying a different mix of aid programs and funding sources. But legislative leaders have said they are determined to reach a compromise before the General Assembly session ends April 9.

The president of an advocacy group for senior citizens said that he was pleased to see the Senate address the prescription price problem but that he hoped the bill was only a beginning. About 200,000 of the state's 600,000 recipients of Medicare, the federal insurance program for the elderly, don't have drug coverage. An additional 600,000 to 800,000 Marylanders lack health insurance of any kind.

"It's good to see them do something, but I'm not sure that's the answer," said Charlie Culbertson, president of United Seniors of Maryland. "The prices of drugs are going up so much faster than the cost of living."

Spending on prescription drugs in Maryland has been rising in the range of 17 percent to 22 percent a year, according to recent estimates.

Although the issue has not come up on the House floor, House leaders are moving aggressively toward a plan -- modeled after a Vermont program -- to allow seniors and many others who aren't poor enough to qualify for Medicaid to receive prescription drug discounts from pharmacies.

A substantial portion of the overall cost would be paid by pharmaceutical companies, who have been lobbying against the proposal in Annapolis.

The Senate bill, too, would require Maryland to seek the required federal permission to have a Vermont-style program. But the state wouldn't actually create the program until it had time to study it further.

Better than none at all

In the meantime, Bromwell said, the Senate package "is much better than not having anything at all. For the first time since I've been down here, I've got people in Perry Hall saying, `I've got to choose between food and pharmacy.'"

The programs that would be expanded under Bromwell's bill include MedBank, a nonprofit service linking low-income Marylanders to some prescription drugs offered free by manufacturers.

The program currently is a pilot in the Baltimore area and Western Maryland. Under the Senate bill, it would go statewide.

Other possibilities

Also targeted are the Pharmacy Assistance Program, in which the state subsidizes medications and recipients have a modest co-payment, and a prescription drug subsidy program financed by insurance carriers who receive discounts on hospital rates in return for helping the needy receive coverage.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening didn't include any money for prescription drug assistance in his budget, saying the issue is best addressed at the federal level. If the General Assembly approves a bill, legislators would have to persuade him to include the money in a supplemental budget.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.