A legislative push to reduce the cost of prescription drugs for elderly and low-income Maryland residents won backing yesterday from the two Democrats eyeing the 2006 governor's race, as well as the party's presidential nominee, John F. Kerry.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan voiced support for a pair of initiatives that would allow the state to bring in cheaper drugs from Canada and expand a drug discount program to serve low-income families.
The Democrats appeared at an event sponsored by the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, a consumer-oriented organization. Though the group is officially nonpartisan, the morning announcement in Annapolis took on political overtones.
A representative from Kerry's campaign also offered support for the measures, which are needed because federal reforms championed by President Bush's administration have not helped enough people, several speakers said.
"It drives home the imperative that we must innovate at the state level," said O'Malley, who displayed a Kerry-Edwards sticker on his binder.
The initiatives touted yesterday, which will be introduced when the General Assembly convenes in January, are among a growing number of state and local efforts that have been launched across the country to curb drug costs.
Last week, the Montgomery County Council voted to begin buying medication in Canada in defiance of federal law. The decision is intended to give county employees, retirees and their dependents the option of obtaining lower-cost "maintenance" medications from a Canadian vendor as soon as February and could save the county $20 million a year, proponents say. In many cases, drugs sold in Canada are produced in the United States but are available at lower prices there as a result of government regulation.
The state-level drug importation measure advanced yesterday mirrors a bill introduced in the last session by Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's). The bill was approved by both the House and Senate but failed to win final passage in the session's closing hours.
Pinsky's measure would direct the state to begin importing lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada, but only after receiving permission from the federal Food and Drug Administration. Such a waiver seems highly unlikely from the Bush administration, which has voiced concerns about the safety of drugs coming back into the United States from Canada.
Moreover, Henry P. Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), said yesterday that although the governor has not offered a formal position on the idea, he "believes there are significant legal and safety questions that have to be answered on the state level."
Vincent DeMarco, president of the group that sponsored yesterday's event, said he had sought to gauge the views of the Bush and Kerry campaigns. Bush did not respond to a letter and repeated phone calls, he said, while Kerry sent a letter of support and directed Heather R. Mizeur, who heads his Maryland campaign, to attend yesterday's event.
"We will help Americans by getting them real prescription drug relief, including allowing them to purchase safe, FDA-approved drugs from Canada and other countries," the Kerry letter said.
DeMarco said he was "extremely disappointed" with the Bush campaign but wants its support.
The other initiative sought by DeMarco's group would allow low-income Maryland residents without drug coverage to obtain prescriptions through the state Medicaid program.
Families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level -- $47,000 a year for a family of three -- would be eligible. Taking advantage of the state's buying power would save families up to 40 percent on many name-brand drugs, according to the proposal.
Maine ran a similar program for 18 months, but it was discontinued in 2002 after a dispute with the Bush administration.
Maryland offers a similar discount program restricted to seniors earning up to 175 percent of the poverty level. It was championed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) in 2001 and later embraced by Ehrlich upon its launch last summer.
Fawell said Ehrlich is willing to look at an expansion of the program.