Thursday, December 11, 2003

Ohioans to get drug discount

Bill aims to help both poor, elderly

By Carrie Spencer
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - The Ohio Senate on Wednesday passed a prescription drug discount plan that backers said would be a model for other states trying to provide relief for poor and older people without adequate insurance coverage.

The bill creating Ohio's Best Rx Program, which also passed overwhelmingly in the House on Tuesday, would provide discounts of up to 40 percent benefiting up to 1.7 million Ohioans.

"It's a model for helping the uninsured," said Kathy Keller, spokeswoman for AARP/Ohio. "While a discount isn't exactly coverage, it will help a lot of people."

Ohio, which already has a discount for seniors through the Golden Buckeye program, is among 20 states with some sort of prescription discounts, said Richard Cauchi, health analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Only nine are up and running, he added.

Ohio's plan was negotiated weeks ago by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association and a coalition headed by the Ohio AFL-CIO that also included AARP/Ohio, the Ohio Council of Churches, the Ohio Nurses' Association and the League of Women Voters.

Both sides called the deal groundbreaking.

"It's the first successful collaboration of consumer advocates and PhRMA to craft a bill that everybody's happy with," Keller said.

The bill is also unusual for not having age limits. Neither does it limit drug choices to generics. The pharmaceutical association would only back a plan that didn't limit consumer choice, said Kurt Malmgren, the group's senior vice president for government affairs.

A different plan enacted in Maine helped the group figure out what worked for the industry, which they used in these negotiations, said association spokeswoman Jenny Camper.

The program likely won't begin until late summer, after a required bid process, said China Widener, assistant director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. It would cover people at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level - about $22,450 for an individual or $46,000 for a family of four.

"There will still be people out there who will not be able to afford their prescription drugs," Keller said. "It's a lot better than nothing."

The agreement united longtime adversaries. Labor and other groups have fought to get some type of price relief for years, said Bill Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO.

"When PhRMA contacted us and said they'd like to sit down (and negotiate) ... we jumped at the chance," he said.

The plan will require an initial investment of $10 million in state funds to provide initial rebate payments to pharmacies. Officials estimate it will take six months before drug makers begin sending their rebates to the state.

It also imposes a four-month waiting period upon losing prescription drug coverage and enrolling for the program - a provision meant to discourage employers from dropping insurance benefits.

The Senate voted 32-1 for the bill, a day after the 93-1 vote in the House. The Senate bill must be sent back to the House for agreement on a technical change. Gov. Bob Taft said he will sign it.

Sen. Robert Spada, a Parma Republican and the bill's Senate sponsor, fought tears as he recalled asking his mother 12 years ago why she wasn't taking medicine to treat nausea and pain during her fight with terminal cancer.

"She said, 'Bobby, these medicines are too expensive,' " he said.

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