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The San Diego Union-Tribune
Jan 07, 2005 - 01:00 AM

by Sarah Skidmore, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

Drug savings plan directed at low-income Californians

State officials said yesterday that a new drug savings plan will provide approximately 5 million low-income Californians with drug discounts of up to 40 percent of retail prices.

The California Rx plan, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced in his State of the State speech on Wednesday, would provide one-stop access to discounts many drug manufacturers already offer.

The state is also seeking to negotiate more voluntary discounts, under which manufacturers would provide medications to low-income residents at prices no higher than what health plans and other commercial purchasers pay.

The Department of Health Services estimates such deals would generate a 17 percent to 20 percent discount. The state is also asking pharmacies to discount their markups on drugs, which could reduce costs by another 20 percent.

David Topp, assistant secretary of the Health and Human Services Agency, said the state has several initial agreements with drug providers and said many discounts may exceed these levels.

"We believe we will get widespread support," Topp said. "(For) those who are paying full price or forgoing prescription drugs altogther, it's real and it's meaningful."

Residents whose income is triple the federal poverty level would be eligible, which means the maximum income would be approximately $27,930 for an individual or $56,550 for a family of four.

The proposal has the support of several key groups such as the California Medical Association and the California Pharmacists Association. Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Charles Poochigian, R-Fresno, will co-author the bill to create California Rx.

Still, some consumer advocates are critical.

"(These companies are) the makers of Vioxx and Celebrex," said Jerry Flanagan, spokesman for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "We can't trust drug companies to give discounts."

Other groups said making the program voluntary does not guarantee that savings or necessary drugs will be available. Additionally, as indicated by poor response to Medicare drug cards, the plan may be difficult to implement. "(It's) like a prescription drug ad," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California. "The first 30 seconds someone is running happily through a field, and the second 30 seconds it's all the fine print."

Topp said mandating the discounts would require federal approval, which is unlikely to happen.

"We're supporting any access to prescription drugs," said Karen Nikos, spokeswoman for the California Medical Association. "We need to be a part of this (effort) each time."

The Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers Association agreed to provide $10 million over the next two fiscal years to fund a clearinghouse that will publicize and provide enrollment services for the program.

Participants will be able to enroll through the Internet, local pharmacies, physicians' offices or a toll-free number. The California Health and Human Services Agency anticipates beginning the program Jan. 1, 2006, and operating the clearinghouse in spring 2005.




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