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Legislature passes prescription drug plan for seniors
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- In resounding fashion, Missouri lawmakers gave final approval Friday to legislation creating an insurance-like prescription drug benefit for lower-income senior citizens.
The nearly unanimous House and Senate votes sent the bill -- and a political victory -- to Gov. Bob Holden, who called the Legislature back into special session after it failed to agree on a prescription plan earlier this year.
This time, lawmakers took just a week and a half to draft, debate, amend and pass a prescription plan that was modeled upon recommendations from a bipartisan, summertime task force appointed by Holden.
The vote, for many lawmakers, also made good on their campaign promises of a year ago.
"I can proudly go out and face the seniors and say we did the very best we could do," said Rep. Mark Abel, D-Festus, the bill's House sponsor. "Although it's a program that's not the total answer to all their needs, I think it's a program that the state of Missouri can do."
Credit cost $85 million
The legislation repeals a prescription drug income tax credit frequently criticized as costing too much yet providing too little help for seniors. The tax credit, passed in 1999, provided up to $200 to more than 490,000 people last fiscal year, costing the state more than $85 million.
The new program could cost the state just as much or more, but it would provide greater benefits to a smaller number of seniors.
Legislative researchers put the cost at $100 million for the fiscal year starting July 1 and $88 million the next year. Consultants hired by the task force, however, projected costs up to $52 million the first year and up to $85 million the next year.
Many lawmakers liked the lower estimates, saying they were based on more realistic participation rates. As a safeguard, the bill limits any expenditures to whatever amount is appropriated by the Legislature.
Either way, "This is a costly program. There's no doubt about that," said Sen. Marvin Singleton, R-Seneca, the bill's Senate sponsor.
Some worried the cost would be too high.
"I hope the need isn't so great that we break the bank," said Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon.
Under the legislation, the state will pay up to 60 percent of the prescription costs for Missourians age 65 and older. To qualify, individuals can earn no more than $17,000 annually and couples $23,000.
A two-tiered structure sets a $25 enrollment fee and $250 deductible for individuals earning less than $12,000 annually and couples less than $17,000. Those earning more pay a $35 enrollment fee and a $500 deductible.