Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend pledged yesterday to help relieve senior citizens of the "crushing financial burden" of prescription drugs, unveiling a plan to give steep discounts to 200,000 Marylanders who don't have private coverage.
Townsend's proposal would be funded largely by price reductions negotiated with drug manufacturers -- the basis of an existing state program that helps poor, chronically ill Marylanders obtain medicine. The state's cost would be about $8 million a year.
She hopes to make prescription drugs a high-profile issue during the gubernatorial campaign, and was immediately challenged by her expected Republican opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who said the proposal is unaffordable and unwise.
Townsend announced her plan at the Westminster House apartments for seniors in downtown Baltimore and repeated it later in the day at a Montgomery County senior housing center.
"Two hundred thousand seniors are at risk every day because they have no prescription drug coverage," Townsend said. "These drugs are literally out of the reach of thousands of Marylanders. It's wrong."
The lieutenant governor's proposal was praised yesterday by groups seeking greater access to low-cost health care. But it was criticized by a state lobbying group for pharmacies, which said they would be forced to bear too much of the cost.
Ehrlich charged that Townsend should specify where she would find the $8 million for her program, and he questioned why Townsend and Gov. Parris N. Glendening didn't do more for seniors over the past eight years if she thinks the state needs to help on prescription drugs.
"The state is broke, period," Ehrlich said. "To offer clearly unaffordable solutions to raise expectations is not the way to go."
Townsend defended the cost of her plan, saying most will come from lower payments to drug manufacturers. As for the $8 million in state funding, she said that Maryland is "one of the richest states in the country" and "in that prosperity, we will find money."
"The savings in this program are not coming at the expense of neighborhood pharmacies," Townsend said.
The lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Chain Drug Stores, Michael V. Johansen, disagreed. He said pharmacies would lose several million dollars because the formula in the proposal would reimburse only about 90 percent of the regular prices.
A spokesman for Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America -- whose members would appear to bear much of the cost of Townsend's plan -- declined to comment yesterday until seeing more specifics. But the industry has filed lawsuits in other states to block somewhat similar discount plans.
Under the proposal, about 200,000 Maryland seniors who don't have private prescription drug insurance coverage would receive an average 28 percent discount off the retail price. They also would pay a $1 dispensing fee to pharmacists filling their prescriptions.
The discounted prices would be the same as what the state has negotiated with drug manufacturers for an assistance program for low-income, chronically ill Marylanders. The state pays the full cost of prescriptions for the 30,000 people in that program.
Of the 200,000 seniors who would qualify for Townsend's program, about 90,000 who are considered low-income -- individuals earning $15,500 or less and couples making $20,900 or less -- would receive an average discount of 35 percent.
"The cost of prescription drugs is hurting everyone right in the pocketbook," said Ernest B. Crofoot, president of United Seniors of Maryland, an advocacy group. "This is a good step."
Townsend's proposal expands on legislation approved recently by the General Assembly to assist seniors with the cost of drugs. Two years ago, the Assembly created a program permitting up to 30,000 low-income seniors to enroll in a $10-per- month plan, making them eligible for up to $1,000 in drug benefits a year.
"It's a good extension of what we passed," said Del. Michael E. Busch, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. "She's reaching out to a segment of society that needs this type of assistance."
Much of Townsend's plan is pieced together from legislation that failed in recent years in the Assembly. A portion of it also was included in a 2001 law that never took effect because of inaction by the federal government.
The lieutenant governor hopes to take advantage of what has been a hot-button issue for the past few years among senior citizens -- a large voting population. By contrast, Glendening resisted efforts by lawmakers to increase state aid for prescription drugs, saying it was a national problem that needs a national solution through Medicare.
Townsend, Ehrlich, health care advocates and pharmacy industry representatives all agree with Glendening that the ultimate solution to prescription drugs for seniors must come from the federal government. Townsend said she is pushing her plan because Congress appears to be caught up in partisan fighting.
Ehrlich said the subcommittee he serves on has been working on a plan. But Families USA -- a nonpartisan group advocating affordable health care -- has described Republican prescription drug proposals as "extremely deceptive." The group's executive director, Ron Pollack, said they have been "for the drug industry and against the interests of senior citizens."
"Kathleen Kennedy Townsend clearly is doing the opposite of Bob Ehrlich, because she is going to the mat with the drug industry ... and using the state's bargaining power to achieve major discounts on behalf of seniors," said Pollack, whose group backed failed Clinton administration health care reform proposals.
Democrats said they plan to target Ehrlich's congressional record. Ehrlich, however, said he supports a federal prescription drug plan and backs putting aside $310 billion for such benefits. "I voted for plans that I thought were good and against plans that I thought were bad policy," he said.