House passes drug relief

Measure would lower cost of prescriptions for 300,000 statewide

Senate version differs

March 24, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Nearly 300,000 senior citizens and the poor would receive up to 30 percent discounts on prescription drugs under a bill unanimously approved yesterday by the House of Delegates.

The measure differs markedly from a more modest prescription drug package passed by the Senate on Tuesday. The differences would have to be resolved by a House-Senate conference committee before the legislative session ends April 9.

The Senate proposal relies largely on state funds, earmarking $20 million to expand existing programs offering free or discounted medications to include an additional 72,000 people who are elderly or poor.

The House bill, modeled after a Vermont program, would require drug manufacturers and pharmacies to pick up most of the tab for discounts. All senior citizens in Maryland would be eligible, as would people earning up to three times the federal poverty level of $11,610 for a family of two - an estimated 292,000 Marylanders in all.

The legislation also directs state officials to seek the required federal permission to begin the program. That process could take six months or longer.

The House bill also proposes spending another $23 million - none of it state money - to expand an existing insurance plan to serve up to 50,000 people. They would pay $10 a month to receive up to $1,200 a year in prescription drug benefits. The legislation would require co-payments of $20 for brand-name prescriptions and $10 for generic equivalents.

The $23 million would come from cutting the discount the state gives insurance carriers on hospital rates in exchange for their insuring people who could not otherwise obtain coverage.

The legislation is a pet project of House Economic Matters Committee Chairman Michael E. Busch and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

"I'm happy with what came out today," Taylor said after the vote. He added, however, "I have no idea what we can preserve" in negotiations with the Senate.

Said Busch: "The issue is what is the best way to put this all together. It all comes down to what you consider to be meaningful relief."

Representatives of drug manufacturers, insurance carriers and pharmacies have been lobbying against the House bill.

"Our biggest issue is ensuring that the final product addresses the financial impact on local pharmacies," said Michael V. Johansen, a lobbyist for the state's chain drugstores.

About one-third of the 600,000 Marylanders in Medicare, the federal insurance program for the elderly, lack prescription drug coverage. An additional 600,000 to 800,000 Marylanders lack health insurance of any kind.

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

Any state funds the Assembly decides to spend for drug relief would have to be included in a supplemental budget to be submitted by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. But the governor is unlikely to include as much as the $20 million that the Senate is proposing.

Michael Morrill, the governor's spokesman, said Glendening considers the matter a federal responsibility but is willing to support a temporary plan that "bridges" the state until Congress and President Bush come up with a national program.

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