Governor, legislators work to settle differences on drug plan for elderly

House, Senate disagree on type of prescription aid

March 29, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening worked yesterday to bridge House and Senate differences over helping senior citizens afford the high cost of prescription drugs, and indicated he is willing to provide state aid to address the problem, according to legislators.

"There will be an agreement. There will be a bill," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, said after meeting with the governor.

Glendening and legislators discussed having the state pitch in $6 million to provide relief from the rising cost of pharmacy-bought medications. That amount is much less than Bromwell and other senators are proposing, but it could provide subsidies for tens of thousands of senior citizens and the poor.

"We would be grateful for the amount. It's a start," said David Conn of the Maryland Jewish Alliance, part of a senior citizens' advocacy group seeking prescription aid.

Believing the drug issue to be a federal responsibility, Glendening did not include money for a new prescription benefit in his $21.3 billion budget proposal.

New funding would come in a supplemental budget to be released during the next few days. The prescription benefit money could come from either general funds or a penalty-free tax amnesty program for Marylanders paying overdue taxes.

Most of the expected $30 million in proceeds from the amnesty program is likely to go toward helping close an estimated $42 million shortfall in the state's mental health programs, but some could go toward prescription drug relief.

The governor's supplemental budget is designed to address unmet needs. Many legislators have said Glendening's original budget did not do enough to address debt at the Mental Hygiene Administration that arose, in part, because officials underestimated how many people they served who weren't eligible for federal Medicaid assistance. Senators and delegates have also complained that Glendening should have created a new drug subsidy program from the beginning, instead of waiting for the federal government to act.

The House and Senate have passed markedly different prescription drug packages. The more cautious Senate bill relies on $20 million in state funds to provide free or discounted medications. The House proposes an ambitious package in which insurance carriers, pharmacies and drug manufacturers would be required to pick up some of the tab.

"The governor is trying to get the House and Senate committees to agree on an approach," said Barbara Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill said yesterday that "there is no final agreement yet. It's all part of an interlocking mechanism, and all of the gears have to come together."

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