ANNAPOLIS – Tens of thousands of low-income senior citizens have found relief from high medicine costs through Maryland’s newly expanded prescription drug relief program, health department officials reported to the General Assembly.
The Senior Prescription Drug Relief Act, signed into legislation last session, extended Maryland’s drug subsidy plan, broadened the geographic scope of the Maryland Medbank program and required the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to take the first step in creating a state-run drug discount program.
Through CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, Maryland’s largest private health insurer, the short-term prescription drug subsidy plan now pays for $1,000 worth of drugs for Medicare-eligible seniors statewide. Before this year, the program applied only to eligible seniors in rural areas.
CareFirst representatives said the expansion has been a success, with enrollment in every county.
“Job well done,” CareFirst lobbyist Fran Doherty told members of the health department and the Joint Committee on Health Care Delivery and Financing last week. “We feel the outreach has been really pretty terrific.”
Of the 30,000 program slots opened this year, 26,418 have been filled, Doherty said, and more than $6 million in care has been paid.
Carefirst spokeman James Day said the pending merger with WellPoint Health Networks, a California-based insurance provider, does not affect the program’s funding. CareFirst funds drug subsidies through hospital rate discounts granted by the state. In return, CareFirst acts as an “insurer of last resort,” offering open enrollment to those for whom insurance is hard to come by.
The Medbank program, which helps uninsured Marylanders apply to pharmaceutical companies for free drugs, now operates statewide through five regional offices with a budget of $2.5 million, according to the health department. Medbank originally served Baltimore and Western Maryland.
The program has helped 5,705 people fill prescriptions this year-3,189 since expanding July 1, the department reported. Both Medbank and the drug subsidy will end June 2003 or sooner, if a prescription drug benefit is added to the federal Medicare program.
The health department also requested a waiver from the federal government to allow the prescription drug purchasing discount for Medicaid to apply to Medicare recipients too. The discounts come from the state’s ability to purchase medicines in bulk.
If approved, the waiver would provide up to $28 million federal dollars for a program to offer drug discounts to all in-state Medicare patients who don’t have prescription drug coverage.
Medicare is a federal program. Without the waiver, the discount plan would have to operate on only the state’s $8 million. The department submitted its waiver application June 13.
The discount program will begin enrolling members after Jan. 1, 2002.
Legislators were cheered by the report and say they would like to see the drug relief programs grow.
“We would love to be able to expand our role, to provide more assistance to these seniors,” said Delegate Peter A. Hammen, D-Baltimore. “[Gov. Parris N. Glendening] has said time and time again that this is the responsibility of the federal government, but if over and over the federal government isn’t acting . . . then we need to do something.”