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Discounts on drugs for seniors near reality

The plan would cost an estimated $30-million annually and help about 30,000 senior citizens pay for medicines if it wins final approval.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Thousands of struggling senior citizens could soon get some help paying for prescription drugs, under measures given preliminary approval by the state House and Senate on Friday.

Both the House and the Senate would provide poor seniors up to $80 per month in pharmacy benefits. Qualified seniors would have to come up with a 10 percent co-payment.

"This bill gets to so many of our needy seniors, those who have to choose between eating a meal or taking a pill that would sustain their lives," said Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon.

In addition, both chambers would force pharmacies that participate in the state's Medicaid program to give Florida's 2.8-million Medicare recipients a discount on drugs. Pharmacists would use a discount formula that state officials estimate could lead to an average discount of 5 to 10 percent.

That discount would be enjoyed by all Medicare recipients, regardless of income.

In all, the cost of the program is estimated at $30-million per year. The state estimates the program would help about 30,000 seniors.

Medicare is the responsibility of the federal government. But with the Republican-controlled Congress and President Clinton at loggerheads over how to give seniors help paying for drugs, the Republican-controlled state Legislature has decided to take action on its own. The program would cease if the federal government agrees on its own program.

"Let this be a wakeup call to Washington," said Rep. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.

The program has been scaled back from the $55-million plan originally announced, as Republicans looked to find money for a $500-million tax cut, education and other state needs. Gov. Jeb Bush hasn't taken a position yet. Still, the program should play well in an election year, given that one out of six Floridians is over age 65. The GOP is also mindful of polls showing that seniors trust Democrats more when it comes to critical issues such as Medicare and Social Security.

As currently written, the prescription drug benefit would help poor seniors whose income is from 90 percent to 120 percent of the poverty level. That's between $10,125 and $13,500 a year for a family of two.

House Democrats tried to amend the bill to also help seniors at slightly higher income levels, calling it a "wonderful bill ... that doesn't go far enough."

There may be one hangup, however. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, is the Senate sponsor, and his bill contains a provision that the House bill does not.

Lee wants to force pharmaceutical manufacturers to disclose certain gifts to doctors. Such gifts are part of the pharmaceutical sales force's pitch to get doctors to prescribe one drug over another. Lee would force the companies to disclose gifts over $100 or gifts totalling $250 or more in a given year.

Lee said he remains committed to the provision. If the two chambers can't agree, nothing will pass.

-- Staff Writer Julie Hauserman contributed to this report.

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