ANNAPOLIS – More than 200,000 seniors and Medicare-eligible individuals will get some relief from the rising cost of prescription drugs starting July 1, when Maryland’s new prescription drug bill is scheduled to take effect.
All that is needed now before the Senior Prescription Drug Relief Act becomes law is Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s signature, something he could do as early as May 15, said spokeswoman Raquel Guillory. The drug relief act adds approximately $30 million to the Maryland Pharmacy Discount Program, Medbank and the Short-Term Drug Subsidy Program.
Medicare-eligible individuals at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty level will be able to purchase prescription drugs at the Medicaid price minus any rebates through the Maryland Pharmacy Discount Program.
The Health Care Financing Administration must provide a waiver for this portion of the drug program.
Additionally, all Medicare beneficiaries without prescription drug coverage will be able to purchase prescription drugs at 65 percent of the Medicaid rate.
Without the waiver, Medicare beneficiaries would still be able to buy drugs at a discounted price. Medicare-eligible individuals — up to 175 percent of the federal poverty level, or $15,032.50 a year — would pay 75 percent of the Medicaid price for prescriptions. The federal poverty level is $8,590.
“Anything will help, but I think 175 percent is the poorest of the poor,” said Pearl Lewis, a volunteer aide for the Maryland Patient Advocacy Organization. “I would have liked to have seen more, but that’s okay. That’s a start.”
About $2.5 million is allocated to expanding Medbank to the Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland/Anne Arundel County and the Washington suburbs. Medbank, now in Western Maryland and Baltimore County, provides access to free prescription drugs to eligible individuals.
Another piece of the legislation allows Medicare beneficiaries without prescription drug coverage and with incomes of $25,770 or less a year, to be eligible for Maryland’s Short-Term Prescription Drug Subsidy Program.
The number of people the program may serve is increased under the legislation from 15,000 to 30,000, eliminates the $50 deductible and lowers the monthly premium from $40 to $10. Qualifying individuals could get up to $1,000 worth of prescription drugs at a discounted price. The program is set to end June 30, 2003.
The bill requires the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene study the programs and determine whether the state should offer a tax credit to low-income people who spend an undetermined percentage of their income on medication.
“It’s not everything we wanted. It’s a step in the right direction,” Lewis said.
“It’s going to help a lot of people . . . We’re going to have to do this incrementally piece by piece.”
The House-Senate Joint Conference Committee spent several days ironing out the differences between the House and Senate bills. Reports went back and forth between the chambers until late Monday night when the biggest piece of health care legislation this session got its final approval.
“We want to reduce health care costs and at the same time we want the best possible health care for ourselves and our families,” said sponsor Delegate Dan K. Morhaim, D-Baltimore, an emergency room physician. “That’s often a very difficult thing to reconcile, so a combination of things are required such as seeing to it that insurance and other programs cover the essentials.”
U.S. drug spending grew more rapidly than other health spending in the 90s, according to a report last year from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Health care spending by Marylanders increased 4.6 percent in 1999, while spending on prescription drugs increased 22.2 percent in the same year, according to the Maryland Health Care Commission.
“It’s such a big problem,” said Delegate Pauline Menes, D-Prince George’s. “Everyone tried to think of ways of improving the circumstances.”
Maryland has become a leader in expanding insurance coverage to its poor, uninsured citizens, said Morhaim. With several other measures passed this session, insurance companies will cover morbid obesity surgery, colorectal cancer screening and hearing aids for children.
Recently, the federal government approved a state plan to expand Medicaid to cover poor, uninsured women being treated for breast and cervical cancer. The state already provides limited treatment benefits under a state-funded program.
With the passage of the drug relief act, the state moves one step closer to providing universal comprehensive health insurance, a goal Morhaim says it already has achieved.
“I think we are there now, but it’s very poor and done very late in the day and after the fact,” he said. “It’s not working optimally. Everybody needs to have health insurance and health coverage but also the kind of coverage that promotes prevention and healthy lifestyles.”