General Assembly's drug trap

Prescriptions: In helping low-income seniors, legislators must avoid an unaffordable commitment.

April 07, 2001

FOR ALL THE right reasons, state lawmakers may take some unwise steps. They want to help seniors who are too poor to buy prescription drugs. But in doing so, they may be hurting Maryland druggists and committing the state to a program of immense proportions.

Senators and delegates are trying to cobble together a bill that would help Medicare recipients, and those not quite poor enough to qualify for Medicare, obtain prescription drugs. A reluctant Gov. Parris N. Glendening put $6.5 million in his budget for this purpose.

But Mr. Glendening is wary of getting too deeply involved. Soaring drug costs make it less likely that Congress will find a way to help seniors pay for their prescriptions.

In just six months, the projected cost of prescription drugs for the elderly over the next 10 years jumped nearly 50 percent, to a staggering $1.5 trillion.

Will Maryland be left holding the bag if Washington backs away from a prescription-drug plan?

Every legislator knows that once money is committed to such a program, it will be virtually impossible to pull back. Indeed, seniors will demand far more money from the state in later years, both to increase the subsidy and expand the number of recipients.

Additionally, independent pharmacists could be deeply hurt. Delegates want to impose price controls on pharmacies that fill prescriptions for seniors. This could seriously harm the state's 250 independent druggists without getting at the real problem -- the ever-higher prices charged by manufacturers.

Legislative leaders are determined to enact a drug-subsidy measure. They should do so with extreme caution. They need to craft a bill that assists the poorest of Maryland's seniors without creating an unaffordable entitlement.

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