ANNAPOLIS -- The University of Maryland has established a Center on Drugs and Public Policy to develop a national strategy to make prescription drugs affordable and promote their safe use, officials announced last week.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer and university officials said that the center, to be located at the school's Baltimore campus, is the first of its kind in the nation.

"Over 30 million prescriptions were dispensed in the state last year, so this is no small issue," Schaefer said, adding that the center was established "to make sure that some of the problems related to good drugs don't get ignored in the face of our very real concern with the problem of bad drugs."

University pharmacy Prof. David Knapp, who will head the center, said researchers will "not attempt to come up with new drugs. We will focus on issues on the good use of drugs. Drugs can be -- and are -- miracle workers if they're used correctly."

The center's mission will be to study ways to ensure that prescription drugs are more quickly accessible to doctors and more affordable for patients, officials said.

Knapp said the university redirected some of its funding from this year to start the center. He said he hopes to raise funds from the private sector to have the center "attain the preeminence nationally as a resource that our leaders will turn to for advice."

Knapp said businesses providing insurance to their employes are especially interested in finding ways to streamline health care costs.

"If drugs are used appropriately, they can have a leverage effect at holding down costs in other health care areas," he said.

The center is a joint venture between the University of Maryland at Baltimore's school of pharmacy and the University of Maryland Baltimore County campus' policy sciences graduate program.

UMBC Chancellor Michael Hooker said the center is strategically located because the Baltimore-Washington corridor is fast becoming a biotechnology research area.

Hooker said the center staff will prepare papers and sponsor workshops on current drug policy issues, such as the Federal Drug Administration's proposal to speed up the approval of drugs for deadly diseases, such as AIDS.

He said one issue now facing the nation is whether preventive therapeutic drugs for acquired immune deficiency syndrome should be tested on a broad scale instead of waiting for FDA approval that may take years.

The center also plans to issue a policy statement on whether prescriptions should be covered under the federal Medicare program, officials said.