State not promoting Web site to find prescription drugs

Monday, April 10, 2006

The program was supposed to help seniors save money.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Near the end of his term, then-Gov. Bob Holden made a big deal about taking a step to help senior citizens find cheaper prescription drugs.

He held a news conference with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in Chicago to announce Missouri was joining an Illinois program that enables residents to buy prescription drugs from other countries over the Internet.

About a year and a half later, Missouri residents would be hard-pressed to even know about the program and its potential benefits.

The program works through a Canadian clearinghouse to connect residents to pharmacies and wholesalers in Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom that have been approved by Illinois health inspectors. It claims residents can save up to 80 percent off U.S. retail prices on more than 100 prescription medications.

After Holden's announcement, Republican candidate Matt Blunt said he had some concerns about the idea. As a new governor in 2005, Blunt decided to continue the program -- but evidence of that is hard to find.

Although Missouri has not backed out of its agreement with Illinois, the state isn't working to make people aware of it either.

Missing links

There is no link to the I-SaveRx Web site on Missouri's main state government Web page, on the governor's office page, on the sites of the social services and health agencies or on the separate Missouri Rx program, which helps seniors with prescription drug costs.

Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson said the governor doesn't see a need to push the program, because it doesn't appear to be widely used, and Blunt believes people needing help paying for prescription drugs are finding other options.

Asked if participation by Missouri residents might increase if the state promoted the Web site, Jackson responded: "That doesn't seem that would be the case. It's been pretty widely promoted by the governor of Illinois and really doesn't look to have been very successful."

Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder's office is charged as an advocate for the elderly, and said it once had a link to I-SaveRx on its Web page but removed it for space reasons. However, after inquiries by The Associated Press, the lieutenant governor's office restored the program to its "links" page and its senior advocacy page in the past week.

"My understanding is that any Missouri resident is eligible to participate in I-SaveRx. They have to either go through the I-SaveRx Web site or call their toll-free number," said senior advocate Eric Feltner. "I'm not aware of anything through the state of Missouri where you would enroll."

Some other states that have joined the program, such as Vermont and Wisconsin, list the link prominently, either on the governor's page or through the state's main Web site.

A memo of understanding signed by Holden and Blagojevich's staff in October 2004 said Missouri would place a link to the program on a state Web site, and required that "Missouri will independently promote the I-SaveRx program." It doesn't appear that either has been happening.

All-but-forgotten program

Department of Social Services spokeswoman Deborah Scott said all communications with Illinois officials were during Holden's tenure, and the agency has never included the program on its Web site and sees no need to do so.

"Medicaid was never engaged or involved, nor any other state agency to our knowledge. There have been no further communications on this with Illinois," she said.

Last year, House Speaker Rod Jetton offered legislation that would have allowed Missourians to buy prescription drugs from Canada and specifically to participate in the I-SaveRx program. The bill died, and Jetton isn't trying again this year. A spokesman said he dropped the idea because the federal Medicare prescription drug benefit and programs by U.S. drug manufacturers to help the poor obtain medications are filling the need.

Legislation awaiting action in the Senate takes a different tack, by simply requiring the state to track prices of common prescription drugs at pharmacies around Missouri and post the information online. The thought is disclosing prices around the state will increase competition and help consumers.

But the sponsor, Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, of Kirkwood, said the issue is unrelated to the all-but-forgotten I-SaveRx program.

"My vision is to give patients the knowledge, power to make good decisions," he said. "The typical health care system leaves the patient in the dark."

It seems the state is also leaving patients largely in the dark about the Internet drug program.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Newswoman Kelly Wiese covers state government and politics for The Associated Press.

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