By Shelley Davis
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Some 2.2 million Ohioans might soon get help to purchase prescription drugs, although critics say it won't be enough.
A state program that would lower drug prices for seniors in the state's Golden Buckeye program, supported by Gov. Bob Taft, should be up and running within the next two weeks, said spokesman Orest Holubec. Also available is a new Web site, rxforohio.org, created by pharmaceutical companies intended to help link needy Ohioans to discount drug programs.
"The Web site provides physicians and patients a reliable location that offers a clearinghouse of information," Dr. Steve Brezny of the Ohio Academy of Family Physicians, a sponsor of the site said Monday. "It is sad that many Ohioans who are at the age where they should be enjoying life are worrying if they can afford to meet the cost of their medical conditions."
But not everyone believes such programs will provide much help. Discount programs offered by the state or the drug makers won't assist the majority of needy Ohioans, said Dale Butland, spokesman for the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs.
The group backs a bill that would let the state buy prescription drugs in bulk from pharmaceutical companies at low prices.
The discount card program supported by Taft ignores people under the age of 65, even though half of those who need help aren't elderly, Butland said. Meanwhile, a Web site provided by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) offers discounts only to low-income Ohioans, Butland said.
"PhRMA and the big drug companies will do anything to try to preserve what they regard as their right to gouge (consumers) and to stall meaningful relief for average people," Butland said. "This particular ploy is put forward in an attempt to give the impression that they're concerned with affordable prescription drugs, but, in fact, they're not."
Mark Grayson, PhRMA spokesman, said the program does work. In fact, in 2001, he said, 135,000 Ohioans got free medications from the patient assistance programs drug companies offer to help patients who don't have prescription drug coverage or are underinsured.
PhRMA's Web site, rxforohio.org, will help more Ohioans find out if they're eligible for these programs, Grayson said. Visitors can search for eligibility requirements and contact information on 1,400 medications and 325 programs that can help them get drugs for free or at reduced prices.
"The Web site is really going to harness all the efforts in one place and make it consumer-friendly," said Louise Hughes, spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble Co., which helped develop the site.
Backers hope the Web site will make it simple for patients to find out if they're eligible for discounts. They'll enter their age, income, household size, and medication name to find out which, if any, programs they can apply for.
Patients of all ages and income levels can use the Web site to find discounted drugs, while only seniors over 65 will be eligible for the Golden Buckeye card, Grayson said. PhRMA supports the Golden Buckeye plan.
While Taft is supportive of PhRMA's effort, the governor thinks his discount card program will help more seniors in the long run, Holubec said.
"The concern we have is that not everyone has access to the Internet, especially seniors," Holubec said. "The great thing about the Golden Buckeye card is it already has the faith and confidence of Ohio's seniors. They use it all the time, every day, and now they can use the same card to get discounts on drugs."
The program will be officially announced later in May, but it will take five to seven weeks to mail the discount cards to eligible seniors, Holubec said. About 70 percent of Ohio pharmacies have said they'll participate, although Taft hasn't yet managed to get the backing of a major pharmaceutical company. America's largest drug maker, Pfizer, said it would not take part in the program.
The Golden Buckeye discount cards will give seniors discounts of about 10 percent to 20 percent, which pales in comparison with savings of up to 50 percent that patients could get if the state buys drugs in bulk directly from major pharmaceutical companies, Butland said.
Sen. Bob Hagan, D-Youngstown, has sponsored discount drug program legislation three times. He is hopeful the bill will pass this time around, after two prominent Republicans signed on as sponsors of similar legislation in the House.
Butland said he can't understand why legislators wouldn't want to help Ohioans get the best possible deal on prescription drugs.
"I've racked my brain to find out what legislators are running away from," Butland said. "It seems to me this is a no-brainer and something legislators should be glomming onto."
Not all Republicans are opposed to the plan. Rep. Jim Trakas, R-Independence, joined Rep. Scott Oelslager R-Canton, are breaking ranks with the rest of his party to co-sponsor the bill in the House. Trakas said polls show 90 percent of the voters in his district support the discount program, a number he said is too high to ignore.
"Nothing gets 90 percent approval, not even me," Trakas said.
For now, the coalition and the bill's sponsors continue to push for committee hearings for the legislation, even though PhRMA is suing the state of Maine over a similar discount program.
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