Medicine discounts sought by coalition

Health care advocates to seek bills on Medicaid and drugs from Canada

September 28, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

On the heels of Montgomery County's efforts to sidestep a federal ban on importing cheaper medicines from Canada, a statewide coalition of health care advocates announced plans yesterday to push two bills through the General Assembly next year to give Marylanders access to discounted prescription drugs.

The Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative will support legislation to allow Marylanders without drug coverage who earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level to purchase medicine through the state's Medicaid program, which backers said could save participants up to 40 percent on name-brand drugs. The program would help those who earn less than $28,000, or $47,000 for a family of three.

The coalition, which was backed at a rally in Annapolis yesterday by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign, also pledged to support a measure requiring the state to seek federal approval for Marylanders to buy drugs from Canadian pharmacies.

"Momentum is building on this issue; it's like a tsunami," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored a Canadian-import bill last year. "Everyone knows the public wants lower drug costs. They don't care how they get it, and they don't take kindly to anyone who gets in the way."

Prescription drug prices have become a hot domestic political issue in recent years as new medicines have become increasingly expensive. With an expanding elderly population causing an increase in the demand for the drugs, state and local officials have become aggressive in looking for ways to reduce costs.

The Medicaid discount plan proposed yesterday is modeled on a program implemented by Maine in 2001, which provided savings of about 30 percent for roughly two-thirds of the state's residents who lacked prescription drug coverage, said Vincent DeMarco, the health initiative's president.

A federal appeals court ruled in 2002 that Maine's program was illegal because it lacked specific authorization from the Bush administration.

In the federal Medicare Reform Act of 2003, Congress prohibited the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from negotiating lower prices for its beneficiaries and effectively prohibited importing drugs from Canada. Several state and local governments have defied the law and explored programs to allow government employees to buy drugs from abroad, where price controls make them less expensive.

Last week the Montgomery County Council passed a resolution calling on the county to let municipal employees buy Canadian drugs, but Duncan said he would first seek a waiver from the Food and Drug Administration, which has its headquarters in Rockville.

Duncan also announced this month that he would distribute prescription drug discount cards to all residents. The cards are expected to provide discounts of about 20 percent.

O'Malley said Baltimore would probably follow Montgomery County's lead but that real progress will result only from a statewide program.

"We must innovate at the state level," O'Malley said. "That's what the people of Maine have done, and that's what the people of Maryland want to do, if only the leadership would step up."

Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said the governor does not have a position on either bill but has expressed "considerable concern" about importing drugs from abroad.

The FDA has also questioned the safety of drugs from Canada. Pinsky dismissed that concern, saying officials in Illinois and other states have studied the issue and found Canadian pharmacies to be at least as safe as those in the United States.

"Where is the safety issue? Is it with re-importation of drugs from Canada, or is it from people who have cut their drugs in half or are not taking them at all?" he said.

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