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Maine House Votes to Restore Funding for Elderly Drug Program
04/25/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

More than 35,000 Maine seniors are closer to getting their prescription drug benefits back after the Maine House approved a bill today that would restore about $7 million to the program. The money for the Drugs for the Elderly program and the Medicare Savings Plan was originally cut by the LePage administration in an effort to balance the state's $6.3 billion budget. Opponents unsuccessfully argued the bill extended benefits to those who could afford to pay for it. A.J. Higgins has more.

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When it comes to reducing state budget costs, there are cuts that can actually save money. But state Rep. Richard Farnsworth, a Portland Democrat, says there are also cuts that can ultimately cost more than they save. He says the LePage administration's proposed reduction to the state's Drugs for the Elderly and Medicare Savings Plan fall squarely in the latter category.

"I'm very concerned that this particular program being cut back will take and increase, ultimately, the costs all the way down," Farnsworth said.

Farnsworth serves as the House chair of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, which voted 8-4 to restore approximately $7 million in program funding cuts over the next two years. He and other Democrats maintain that the Drugs for the Elderly program and the Medicare Savings Plan help more than 35,000 seniors and people with disabilities pay for their life-saving medications and afford the co-pays to their doctors.

Farnsworth says that if seniors are forced to abandon their medications because of costs, that decision has financial consequences for all Mainers.

"This gives them that additional ability to have access to appropriate medication so that they can maintain their health at home, in their home communities and to be able to avoid, as much as possible, the acute care channels that we have, which are emergency rooms and hospitalizations," Farnsworth said.

"What we are not talking about is other options that are available," said Rep. Deb Sanderson, a Chelsea Republican who led the opposition in the House against restoring the funding. Sanderson argued that lowering the threshold for program eligibility would cost the state nearly $4 million annually by 2015.

Sanderson says she was able to find alternative drug programs to help her constituents and that they are actually better off than they were under the Drugs for the Elderly option. "These seniors are now stable in this program without having to worry about the yearly budget debate on 'Is my benefit going to get cut?'" Sanderson said.

Kathleen Chase, a Wells Republican on the Appropriations Committee, says in her conversations with York County seniors there is an understanding that not all elderly Mainers are without means.

"When you ask the seniors, they understand," Chase said. "In their group, no different than any other group, there are some who have more retirement benefits, they make a little bit more money. and there are those who are truly needy and truly poor. These people will tell you right up front they're not the poor and needy ones. They would look at that $4 million and they would say give it to those who really need it."

Members of the Maine House voted 93 to 55 to restore the funding, in a vote that fell largely along party lines. The bill will be debated in the Senate next week. Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, of Richmond, predicts the measure will pass.

"Hopefully we'll have full support in getting the bill passed and importantly, this is a priority," Goodall said. "We need to fund this program, it's critical for our seniors and elders in terms of getting drugs. It's both a priority in the budget and we hope that our Republican colleagues join us for that."

If the funding restoration is approved by the Legislature, Goodall said the Appropriations Committee would have to find a way to pay for the program's cost in its reworked version of the governor's budget.


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