Medicaid coverage expanded in state

Joint federal, Md. deal to aid 90,000 seniors

Drug benefit to cost $8 million

July 31, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

About 90,000 low-income Maryland senior citizens will get significant discounts on prescription drugs under a state plan approved yesterday by the Bush administration.

The program, which had been in limbo since it was passed by the General Assembly last year, will serve more than twice the number of seniors now covered by state-run pharmacy-assistance programs. And it will do so with minimal additional cost to the state: $8 million a year.

Seniors with annual incomes of up to $15,505 -- 175 percent of the federal poverty level -- could save up to 50 percent of the cost of a prescription, depending on the drug.

"A drug that costs roughly 100 bucks will now cost in the 50s, so you're almost going to get these drugs for half price," said state Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. The cost of the program is to be shared by drug manufacturers, pharmacies, the federal government and the state.

The plan works by offering prescription drug coverage through Medicaid, the government health program for the poor, to a broader pool than would normally be eligible based on income. The program had required federal approval because Medicaid is a joint federal-state endeavor.

"This is a grand slam," said Busch, who began drafting the program in 2000 out of frustration that Congress had not created an outpatient benefit under Medicare to help seniors afford the drugs they need for medical conditions.

The plan was signed into law by Gov. Parris N. Glendening last year but sat idle while awaiting yesterday's approval by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"This creative program from Maryland helps those low-income seniors who are most in need of drug coverage," U.S. Health Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said in a news release. The department announced approval of a similar plan yesterday for South Carolina and has approved programs for Michigan, Wisconsin and Vermont -- the state upon which Maryland's program is modeled.

Under the program, Maryland will allow low-income seniors who are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid assistance to receive the drug benefit nonetheless.

About 200,000 of Maryland's 600,000 Medicare beneficiaries lack prescription drug coverage. About 90,000 of those who lacked coverage have incomes low enough to qualify for the program approved yesterday.

Busch said the plan could be in place within six months to a year.

Maryland has several pharmacy-aid programs that are expected to continue. One provides up to $1,000 worth of drugs a year to each of the more than 25,000 low-income participants, who pay a $10 monthly fee.

A second program offers maintenance drugs that control chronic illnesses, such as hypertension or diabetes, to about 46,000 people -- not just the elderly.

People with incomes less than $10,300 are eligible, and Maryland funds the program at $40 million per year.

Under yesterday's approval, Maryland got an additional windfall: The federal government agreed to split the cost of the maintenance drug program, saving the state $20 million.

"We thank the federal government for joining with us in the fight against the rising cost of prescription drugs," Glendening said.

Like Busch, the governor has often criticized Congress for not adopting a national drug plan under Medicare.

Glendening has resisted large state expenditures for prescription relief programs, saying the solution lies with the federal government.

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