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Drug benefit bill closer to becoming law

April 07, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - A bill to create a permanent funding source for a program that provides free prescription drugs to low income Marylanders crept a little closer to becoming law on Wednesday as advocates presented their case to a receptive Senate Finance Committee.

The bill, sponsored by Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, would pay for Medbank of Maryland with federal grants for which the state will be eligible next year through the Medicare program.

Through Medbank, pharmacies send prescription drugs directly to the agency, which then distributes them directly to doctors.

Medbank began as a pilot program in Hagerstown through Walnut Street Family Practice, a division of the Washington County Health System.

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Donoghue said that because Maryland is operating its own prescription drug programs, the state will be eligible for $17 million in grants through Medicare. His bill directs a portion of that money to Medbank, which he estimates will need about $2 million a year to operate.

State funding for Medbank was cut to $500,000 in this year's budget proposal, and although Gov. Robert Ehrlich had earmarked another $1 million for MedBank in a supplemental budget, $800,000 of that was cut by lawmakers during budget deliberations.

MedBank Director Robert McEwan told the committee that Medbank will provide "a safety net for all the people between the gaps" when Medicare's new Part D prescription program kicks in next January.

Audrey Miller, director of Medbank for Washington County, told the committee that many people can not afford to purchase the Medicare prescription plan. Their income is too high to qualify for free premiums, she said, "but not enough to afford the premiums."

She said about half of Medbank patients are not eligible for Medicare and can't benefit from the new prescription program.

Medbank, she said, has helped "close to 2,000 in Washington County alone."

No one spoke in opposition to the bill. "We know Medbank and we understand the bill," said committee Chairman Thomas Middleton.

If the committee approves the bill, it will go to the full Senate for a vote.

The House has already approved the bill.

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