OLYMPIA — Emboldened by the legal success of a prescription drug discount program in Maine, state Senate leaders on Thursday proposed a similar program here.
The Maine law lets the state use its buying power to pressure drug companies into offering discounts to uninsured residents. Drug companies sued to stop the program, but last month the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Maine’s law is constitutional.
"We tried earlier, and frankly got nowhere," said state Sen. Pat Thibaudeau, chairwoman of the Washington Legislature’s Senate Health Committee, referring to a dozen prescription drug bills that died during this legislative session.
About one in four Washington residents doesn’t have prescription drug coverage, according to Senate Health Committee staff. Nationally, seniors spend an average of $1,200 a year for prescriptions, up from $559 in 1992.
Gov. Gary Locke’s approach, forcing pharmacies to offer discounts on prescriptions, was recently shot down by a Thurston County Superior Court judge. Legislators came to Olympia in January promising to help consumers with prescription drug expenses, but failed to pass any relevant bills.
Thibaudeau, D-Seattle, and Sen. Alex Deccio, R-Yakima, the ranking Republican on the Senate Health Committee, say the prescription bills fell victim to a combination of budget pressures and concerted lobbying by the drug industry.
Thibaudeau said Maine’s legal success may give the Legislature the push it needs.
"We’re going to try, regardless of who is opposed to it," she said. "We have a responsibility to try."
The pharmaceutical industry will certainly oppose an attempt to enact a Maine-style program in Washington.
"We don’t think price controls are in the best interest of the patients," said Cliff Webster, a Washington lobbyist for PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. "The Maine law insists that manufacturers sell their drugs in Maine at a certain price determined by the state."
Thibaudeau and Deccio say they don’t expect the Legislature to act on their bill this year. Only 26 days remain in the Legislature’s second special session, and lawmakers are still working on budget and transportation plans.
But the senators said they hope to start discussion, raise awareness, lobby their colleagues over the summer and get some action on prescription drugs next year.
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