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Prescription drug program may end

January 24, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - A program that links people with free prescription drugs supplied by drug companies may end unless the Maryland General Assembly can convince Gov. Robert Ehrlich to add $3 million to his budget.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, is leading the effort to save the state Medbank program, which began in Hagerstown and was expanded statewide last year.

"To me it's a true money-saver and preventative medicine at its finest," Donoghue said.

Before the program, patients who were supposed to take medicine for problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes were cutting their pills in half or not taking them because of the high cost, he said.

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Now, doctors and the Washington County Commission on Aging refer those patients to the program, which operates out of the Horace W. Murphy Health Center in Hagerstown.

The office helps patients fill out the paperwork necessary to qualify for free drugs from the pharmaceutical companies. When patients take their medications, they are less likely to go to the emergency room or be hospitalized, Donoghue said.

In the past year, the program has helped 17,287 people get $12 million worth of free medications, Medbank has reported to lawmakers.

In Washington County, about 1,300 people have received $3 million in prescriptions, Zampelli said.

Donoghue said he sees the program as a way to give patients some relief until Congress creates a long-awaited Medicare prescription drug benefit.

"It's a very innovative way to get at a major problem without asking for billions of dollars," he said.

A $3 million investment next year will leverage an estimated $16 million to $20 million worth of free drugs, he said.

The state grant runs out June 30, but Donoghue's bill would continue it indefinitely.

More than 100 of the 141 members of the House of Delegates have agreed to co-sponsor the bill.

Antietam Health Services Inc., which administers the program, is looking for a $150,000 grant to keep the program going in case the legislation is unsuccessful, said Chief Operating Officer Michael Zampelli.

"We're not in the budget. That's not a very good position to be starting in. We're on the outside trying to get in," he said.

Paul Schurick, the governor's spokesman, said Thursday he was unfamiliar with the program so he could not comment.

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