State's drug benefits plan smacked of politics

Thursday, September 20, 2001

After failing to agree on a prescription drug plan for seniors during this year's regular session of the Missouri Legislature, lawmakers wasted little time when they returned during the special session to resoundingly adopt a measure that creates an insurance-like drug benefit program for lower-income senior citizens.

The concern during the regular session was that the state in 1999 had created a costly monster of a program that automatically provided up to a $200 tax credit to more than 490,000 people, whether they participated in the program or not. It also was criticized for providing too little help for seniors who needed it.

That program ended up costing the state more than $85 million, much more than lawmakers had expected when they passed the measure. During the regular session, lawmakers had hoped to repeal the program and replace it with a less costly one that provided help to seniors who need it the most.

While the new program would provide greater benefits to a smaller number of seniors, it will end up costing the state just as much or more than the one lawmakers repealed.

Legislative researchers put the cost at $100 million for the fiscal year starting July 1 and $88 million the next year. Consultants hired by a task force responsible for coming up with a recommendation for a program projected costs up to $52 million the first year and up to $85 million the next year.

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.

As a safeguard, the bill limits any expenditures to whatever amount is appropriated by the Legislature. But either way, it will be costly, particularly if participation is greater than projected, and the state's track record on cost projections for prescription plans has been miserably off.

Even as lawmakers voted to go along with the program, they still expressed concerns over costs to a state government on which Gov. Bob Holden has incurred financial restraints because of his budget concerns.

Gov. Holden was intent on pushing the program through the Legislature regardless of its costs in an effort that smacked of political gain. After all, passage of a measure he championed so gallantly could mean senior votes in his 2004 re-election bid.

And lawmakers, Democrat and Republican alike, who were so adamantly opposed to the program's high cost in the beginning should be ashamed of giving in during the special session to a program that still falls short of their expectations and threatens further their state budget.

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