Unanimous House OKs Senior Drug Discounts

Mar 12, 2003

Allison North Jones

The Tampa Tribune


Led by conservative Speaker Johnnie Byrd, the Florida House gave unanimous approval Tuesday to a bipartisan plan that would provide discounts of up to 60 percent on prescription drugs for low-income retirees.

But the proposed program faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where legislative leaders are balking at the hefty price tag amid Byrd's opposition to either raising taxes or legalizing video poker to help close a projected $4 billion budget deficit. Byrd, R-Plat City, argues the Legislature must learn to live within its means" and favors cutting state spending on other government programs.

The showdown amounts to an unusual turning of the political tables in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Generally, it is the more moderate senate that would be the first to embrace such a bipartisan measure. The more conservative House typically opposes government expansion.

"The frustration is that at a time when we're hearing people say we need to ‘live within our means,' they have all these new ideas about how to put greater burdens on an already strained budget," said state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who likes the drug plan but wonders how the state will pay for it. Lee sponsored his own prescription drug relief bill two years ago, which won Senate approval but died in the House.

Touted in the House as bipartisan measure for the "greatest generation," the plan would provide cuts of 40 to 60 percent for nearly 100,000 low-income seniors grappling with skyrocketing prescription drug costs. A companion measure also would make it easier to access other assistance programs.

"This is our greatest generation, and they're not being treated as our greatest generation," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the legislation's prime sponsor.

The relief package would provide graduated assistance depending on income levels for nearly 100,000 retirees in the first year, while boosting state spending by nearly $12 million. Individuals making nearly $18,000 or less would receive the discounts as would couples making up to $25,000 annually. By next year, nearly a quarter of the million retirees that use Medicaid will have taken advantage of the program, according to government estimates.

Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, has said the state does not have the money for such a bill. Although he supports the program on its merits, funding it this year would be difficult, he said.

In an effort to overcome that possible roadblock, Rep. Bruce Kyle R-Fort Myers, announced what House members called an "avenue" for funding the program. Legislative economists concluded Tuesday that state spending for Medicaid, the state and federally funded health care program for the poor, would be about $30 million less than expected next year.

But Senate leaders did not see the money as the golden egg.

"I'm not so sure that the Senate wouldn't feel that if we have indeed found $30 million that the medically needy program or some of the other programs that are already in existence that we have cut in this budget wouldn't be more deserving than the creation of a new program no matter how good it might be," King said.

Some House members said Tuesday's vote was the first step and that the Legislature should continue looking for ways to help lower drug costs for all Floridians.




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