ANNAPOLIS – The House Health and Government Operations Committee will hold hearings for six prescription drug bills Tuesday, including two proposing that the state import Canadian prescription drugs.
The committee will also hear two other prescription drug proposals Wednesday as lawmakers begin to address an issue that has many Marylanders, especially seniors, upset.
With increases in prices and the need for prescription drugs, the state is seeking reforms to keep medications in supply and affordable.
In addition, the popular Senior Prescription Drug Program is slated to end at the end of the year, which, advocacy groups such as United Seniors of Maryland argue will force many elderly people to stop taking medication they need.
There are six proposals before the panel Tuesday:
Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, and Delegate David Rudolph, D-Cecil, have introduced bills calling for the state to approve a federal waiver allowing it to purchase and distribute Canadian prescription drugs.
Franchot’s bill would also set up a Canadian drug plan to provide drugs for state employees and retirees.
And Rudolph’s version would require the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to certify the drugs’ safety and to seek matching federal funds for the plan.
Rudolph, chairman of the House pharmaceuticals subcommittee, has also co-sponsored a bill with Delegate Keith Haynes, D-Baltimore, to regulate what pharmacies charge Medicare recipients for prescription drugs. The Department of Health would help set the prices and monitor pharmacies.
Delegates Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, and Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, have co-sponsored a measure requesting the Department of Health explore out-of-state options for purchasing drugs for seniors.
Rudolph expects the committee to take the bills apart and combine elements of many of them in their reforms.
“These bills are starting points,” he said.
Delegate Charles Boutin, R-Harford, and Delegate Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, co-sponsored another bill on the committee’s agenda. It would allow the Health Services Cost Review Commission to analyze and regulate prescription drug prices and force drug companies to disclose their methods for determining prices to the commission.
Boutin said a federally protected whistle-blower who works for a pharmaceutical company is expected to testify about the industry’s shady price-setting techniques during Tuesday’s hearings.
Because drug companies enjoy “quasi-monopoly” status, sometimes unfairly vary drug prices and see their services in such high demand, Boutin said, they should be regulated by the state.
“We’re at a point now where we’re such a high-use medication society,” said Boutin, a House health committee member. “What this bill says is, ‘Show us why you need to increase your costs.'”
“I don’t think they want to show.”
The committee is also scheduled to hear another bill from Boutin, co-sponsored by Mandel, which would make the state study prescription drug issues and file a report.
On Wednesday, the committee will hear two bills introduced by Vice Chairman Peter Hammen, D-Baltimore. One would create a program to distribute donated prescription drugs to needy consumers and the other would create a modified version of the Senior Prescription Drug Program.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich allocated $15.3 million in his new budget to cover the current senior drug program from July 1 to Dec. 31. The budget calls for federal Medicare drug benefits to cover Maryland seniors starting in 2006, diverting state funds from the senior plan to low-income residents.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, who created the senior plan, criticized Ehrlich and promised at a January rally to help all Maryland seniors get the prescription drugs they need.
Delegate John Adams Hurson, chairman of the House health committee, also supports state prescription drug reforms. The Montgomery Democrat said the committee must address gaps in the federal Medicare program.
Having Busch and Hurson’s support encourages Rudolph.
“We’re not just doing this to help seniors,” Rudolph said. “We’ve got to make sure that (all) the uninsured in Maryland have access to prescription drugs…This is a major issue for us to address.”