JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Conceding that it was a flawed bill, state senators passed prescription drug legislation designed to create new benefits for the lowest income elderly Missourians.
After seven hours of debate, the Senate voted 24-3 Friday night to for a bill estimated to cost $117.6 million -- far more than senators had intended and more than an existing prescription program that was deemed too expensive.
Despite concerns about costs, the plan now heads to the House, where senators hope that representatives will pass a bill that makes more financial sense.
Senators had hoped to pass a bill costing about $50 million for the fiscal year that begins next July.
Explaining the Senate's unusual haste during the special legislative session, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Marvin Singleton, said: "It's an opportunity to do something, but we don't want to avoid of responsibility to the taxpayers of Missouri."
Sen. John Schneider, D-Florissant, conceded that bill was off track.
"Wouldn't we be better off leaving the current program in place?" Schneider said before voting for the bill.
Voting against the bill were Sens. Mary Bland, D-Kansas City; Ken Jacob, D-Columbia; and Larry Rohrbach, R-California.
The state's prescription drug income tax credit, passed in 1998, was projected to cost $20 million annually but last fiscal year cost $85.2 million.
The Legislature is considering whether to repeal that tax credit and replace it with a program benefiting only those seniors in the greatest need.
A 'leap of faith'
The Senate legislation would limit eligibility for a new program to individuals earning $12,000 or less and couples making $17,000 or less. Participants would have to pay a $25 enrollment fee and a $250 deductible.
Stripped from the bill was a provision that would have extended eligibility to those making up to $23,000. Some lawmakers said the additional eligibility would cost the state too much.
"I think this thing right here is bloated," said Sen. David Klarich, R-Clayton, who sponsored the amendment limiting eligibility. "We have to control costs."
Under Klarich's amendment, only those in the most dire need would receive additional prescription drug help at an estimated cost of $8 million annually.
Singleton called the Senate bill a "leap of faith."
"I can't tell what's going to happen but I have faith in the process," said Singleton, R-Seneca. "I march into this with trepidation."
Still, Singleton hoped the funding issue would work out as the Senate and House negotiate a final version.
"Hopefully we can come back to a bill we can afford," Singleton said.
The House version would extend eligibility to the same upper income levels that the Senate deleted.
Under both bills, the state would pick up 60 percent of seniors' prescription costs up to $5,000 annually. To qualify, seniors would have to be age 65 or older and without pharmaceutical coverage for at least six months.