ANNAPOLIS – Maryland lawmakers seem to have their own agenda for an issue that’s spent months on the national stage: controlling the rising cost of prescription drugs.
A day after the Senate unanimously voted to pass a bill providing prescription drug coverage to senior citizens, two House committees approved a bill Wednesday to expand Medbank and the Maryland Pharmacy Discount Program.
Both the House and Senate bills would provide discounted and free medicine to those eligible.
“It’s such a big problem,” said Delegate Pauline Menes, D-Prince George’s, one House co-sponsor. “This is one of the top priorities.”
Many House members have not seen the Senate bill, said Menes, and are pushing their own legislation.
“I doubt if many of the delegates and senators have talked to each other,” she said. “It’s one of the problems we face.”
U.S. drug spending grew more rapidly than other health spending through the 1990s, according to a 2000 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Marylanders spent 22.2 percent more on prescription drugs in 1999, according to a Maryland Healthcare Commission report.
Nationwide, 23 percent of Americans under age 65 do not have prescription drug coverage; 31 percent of Medicare recipients receive no outside financial aid to cover the cost of medication; and 85 percent of Medicare beneficiaries use at least one prescription drug annually, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Medicare does not cover outpatient prescriptions.
The proposed House bill expands Medbank to include Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland/Anne Arundel County and suburban Washington. Low-income residents in Baltimore County and Western Maryland have access to free prescription drugs through two pilot programs.
An additional 35,000 senior citizens will be covered under the bill, which includes prescription drug coverage plans for individuals with different incomes. The Maryland Pharmacy Discount Program will cover those without drug coverage up to 300 percent above the federal poverty level, or with an annual income of $25,770.
The federal poverty level is $8,590 annual income for an individual.
The program needs a waiver from the Health Care Finance Administration.
While the Senate bill also expands the Medbank program, it increases the income limit for the Maryland Pharmacy Assistance Program from 116 percent of the federal poverty level to 120 percent.
“These bills are very broad,” said Pearl Lewis of the Patient Advocacy Organization. “They’re trying to help everybody at 300 percent. They basically are thumbing their nose at the pharmaceutical industry and that’s what they should be doing.”
Providing prescription drug coverage would hurt the pharmaceutical companies, who depend on people paying out-of-pocket for drugs. Lewis said she spends $15,000 a year on prescription drugs.
“The people who could least afford the inflated prices — the uninsured and the elderly — are the bread and butter for the pharmacy and the pharmaceutical company,” she said.
Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening has said he would like to see prescription drug coverage addressed on the federal level.
Delegate Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, an emergency room physician, agreed: “It’s essential that we do not wait because people are hurting. This is a national problem.”
Morhaim sees the effects of the lack of prescription drug coverage firsthand. He said he has prescribed drugs that are not as good just because they are cheaper.
“It’s upsetting,” he said. “It makes me sad.”
While the House and the Senate are working separately to deal with the problem, both Morhaim and Menes said they expect something to come out of this session. They just hope the governor doesn’t veto it.
“It’s reasonable to expect something will pass that will provide some stopgap relief,” said Morhaim.
Menes said: “There are a lot of people looking for solutions. There’s no problem with a subject like this coming out of both houses with differences. They will get worked out.”