ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich and leading health care lawmakers say they have devised a plan to provide affordable medications to thousands of Maryland seniors when a popular state program is terminated next year.
Ehrlich, House Health and Government Operations Committee vice chairman Peter Hammen, D-Baltimore, and Delegate Donald Elliott, R-Frederick, crafted a change to a bill that will allow the state to complement the federal Medicare Part D medication payment program when it kicks in next year.
The bill takes $14 million annually from Blue Cross Blue Shield to fill in coverage gaps in Part D, subsidizing 75 percent of deductibles for beneficiaries and paying $25 of their monthly $35 premiums — for a total $487.50 annually per enrollee.
Lawmakers are still working on other solutions for the senior prescription drug problem, but said this plan is a major step towards solving it.
“I’m so pleased with how this bill has turned out,” said Elliott, a member of the House health committee.
The action was prompted by Ehrlich’s proposal to cut the Senior Prescription Drug Program, which was established by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, in 2000.
That program, which uses Blue Cross Blue Shield funds to subsidize drug costs for more than 33,000 Maryland seniors, was scheduled to end June 30. In his budget for fiscal 2006, Ehrlich proposed to extend it until the end of 2005, and then eliminate it when Part D goes into effect at the beginning of 2006.
Senior groups, such as United Seniors of Maryland, said Part D by itself would force seniors to pay three times what they do now for drugs and make some pay for the entire cost of drugs that exceed a benefit cap.
The changes were added to Hammen’s bill to extend the Senior Prescription Drug Program.
The lawmakers said they are optimistic their new plan will help many Maryland seniors.
“We’re not filling the hole, but we’re closing the gap,” said Joe Getty, Ehrlich’s policy director.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and American Association of Retired People supported the bill, which was not opposed during a Wednesday hearing before the House health committee.
But it’s far from an ideal solution, lawmakers said.
Delegate David Rudolph, D-Cecil, chairman of the committee’s pharmaceuticals subcommittee, called it “a work in progress.” Rudolph noted that Medicare beneficiaries who are also eligible for Medicaid would not have certain types of medications covered under the new plan.
Getty said the bill has a “realistic” chance of being passed and noted Ehrlich is working on further legislation to attack other gaps in coverage.
The governor, Getty said, is working with Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who introduced a bill to extend the Senior Drug Program until March 2006.
Middleton’s intention was to buy the state three months to see how Part D works, according to committee staff, and is likely to see changes.
Busch, who criticized Ehrlich for proposing to cut the Senior Drug Program, said the main idea is to develop a state plan that continues to make medications accessible to Maryland seniors who could not otherwise afford them.
Marketing such a plan, Busch said, will be just as important as what is does.
“I have all the confidence in the world in Delegate Hammen and (House health committee) Chairman (John Adams) Hurson,” Busch said. “Whatever intentions they have will be in the best intentions of the senior citizens of Maryland.”
Partisanship is being set aside in a search for a solution, the lawmakers said.
“It looks like everybody’s coming together,” Rudolph said.