Drug benefit for elderly clears hurdle

House-Senate negotiators OK insurance program

30,000 would receive aid

$10 monthly premium would be paid by low-income residents

April 07, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

House and Senate negotiators in Annapolis agreed yesterday to create a $21 million insurance program to help 30,000 low-income senior citizens afford the high cost of prescription drugs.

Under the program, expected to receive final General Assembly approval Monday, those eligible would pay a $10 monthly premium and receive up to $1,000 a year in prescriptions. There would be a co-payment ranging from $10 to $35, depending on the drug.

The program is a compromise between competing plans to help some of the 200,000 Medicare recipients in Maryland who lack prescription drug coverage.

"The solution to this problem finally rests with Congress and the president of the United States, but this is an attempt by the state to create a temporary solution," said Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who is chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee.

The program would be limited to two years because the state is hoping the federal government will create an outpatient drug benefit under Medicare that would make Maryland's program unnecessary.

The proposed temporary remedy is the product of days of negotiations among Busch, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas L. Bromwell and other legislators. "We set our minds on getting something done," said Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat.

The insurance program, to be administered by CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield, would be funded mostly by reducing the discount on hospital rates the state gives to insurance carriers in exchange for their covering otherwise uninsurable people.

The program would be limited to elderly or disabled residents with incomes of up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. That amounts to $34,900 a year for a household of two.

"This will certainly be of help to a lot of people," said Charlie Culbertson, president of United Seniors of Maryland.

Besides the insurance coverage, Busch and Bromwell included other potentially significant provisions in the final bill that are aimed at the elderly and the poor:

A requirement that state officials seek federal permission to create a program to allow about 100,000 elderly Marylanders, regardless of income, to receive one-third off the price of their pharmacy prescriptions. The cost of the discount would be assumed by manufacturers and pharmacies.

It would take at least six months to obtain approval from the Health Care Financing Administration in Washington. But Busch said it was worth proceeding because the program would cover many more residents than the state can afford on its own.

An appropriation of $2.5 million in state funds to expand a nonprofit service linking low-income Marylanders to some medicines offered free by manufacturers. That program, MEDBANK, serves 1,800 needy Marylanders but could serve 20,000 with the new funding.

The state's share of the entire package is $6.5 million, and most of the funding would come from the private sector. But Gov. Parris N. Glendening has made Bromwell "a commitment to raise more money next year," said Michael Morrill, the governor's spokesman.

The package has the backing of House and Senate leaders and the governor, and is virtually assured of passage before the legislative session ends at midnight Monday.

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