Montgomery Eyes Free Drug Plan
Clinics Would Be Stocked With Prescriptions for Uninsured
By Linda Perlstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page B08
The Montgomery County Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on an unusual plan to stock local health clinics with free prescription drugs for the uninsured.
The council's Health and Human Services Committee last week adopted a proposal by its chairman, council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), to allocate $350,000 in next year's budget to purchase bulk quantities of the 13 most prescribed drugs. Patients at 11 nonprofit clinics that the county helps to fund would receive the medicine free of charge.
An estimated 80,000 Montgomery County residents do not have health insurance, and these clinics serve one-quarter of those people, Leventhal said yesterday.
Now, uninsured patients' pharmaceutical fates are subject to the vagaries of clinic operations and budgets. Sometimes, patients receive drugs from a stockpile of samples provided by the pharmaceutical industry -- Maryland's nonprofit Medbank program, as it is called, has filled 202,000 prescriptions for 27,000 patients over the last three years. Sometimes they can get reimbursed for a filled prescription, if a clinic happens to have money on hand. And sometimes they get no financial help with their medications.
"It's great to have a medical diagnosis, but if you can't meet the pharmaceutical needs, we're taking a step backward," Wilbur Malloy, project director of the People's Community Wellness Center in Silver Spring, said at a news conference yesterday announcing the proposal.
James Ronan, medical director of Mercy Health Clinic in Germantown, concurred. "I think this is a giant step forward," he said.
The drugs provided under the proposal include antibiotics and treatments for the common conditions of diabetes, hypertension, asthma and depression. Ronan said that a person with hypertension can usually be treated with $5 worth of medicine each month.
Alan Sager, a director of the Health Reform Program at Boston University's School of Public Health, said that $350,000 might not cover the needs of all Montgomery County's underinsured residents, given that Americans on average receive 10 prescriptions a year. But a plan to provide large quantities of free medication -- which has been tried by some large urban hospitals but not county governments -- would allow the county to negotiate better prices and "make a decent dent in the problem," he said.
Council Vice President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) said the plan is one patch of a larger quilt of efforts to bring more accessible health care to the county. One measure he has championed would import lower-priced drugs from Canada to supply the county's employee health plan, at a savings of up to $15 million a year.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
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