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Reno dispenses remedy for high prescription costs

No matter how much the candidates for governor talk about prescription drug coverage, Doris Fortner doubts her friends will be satisfied.

They'll always want to hear more.

Fortner and other senior citizens in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties gave Janet Reno a warm reception Wednesday as she touted her new health care plan, which targets the high drug prices many people complain are taxing their retirements.

In a tour of the Tampa Bay area, Reno, the leading Democratic candidate, focused on her new plan for making prescription drugs cheaper, one of the few platforms for which she has provided details. She also offered her usual promises to do more for the environment, water management and education.

Reno pledged to use the state's size to negotiate with drug companies to bring lower prescription prices for people 65 and older. And she promised to hold accountable the drug companies that refuse to play.

"I think that she was talking very much along the lines of something most of the elderly want to hear about," Fortner, 82, said after Reno spoke to about 200 people at the Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, a 500-resident retirement community in South Pasadena.

"I'm not thoroughly convinced it can be accomplished, but I believe she is the candidate who can do it if it can be done."

Reno's ideas were well-received at the Fountains and at Park Club of Brandon, an assisted-living facility in Hillsborough County.

But Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's campaign made clear it will fight back on this issue, noting the governor has taken several steps to lower drug prices. In 2000, Bush signed a bill requiring pharmacies to offer discounts to seniors on Medicare, the federal health insurance plan for the elderly.

This year's state budget also includes $29-million that, when coupled with federal funds, defrays drug costs for about 58,000 low-income seniors who aren't eligible for Medicaid, the insurance program for the poor, the Bush campaign said.

But Reno said her plan would mean more savings to more people. Under it, all residents 65 and older could pay $25 to enlist in the Affordable Prescription Drug Plan, joining state employees and state Medicaid recipients to form one giant buying pool. Florida has about 2.8-million people 65 or older.

She hopes to persuade drug companies to give rebates to the state that would amount to savings of up to 65 percent below retail costs of brand-name drugs, the same savings enjoyed by the Coast Guard, the Department of Veterans Affairs and some other federal agencies.

"I want to use the purchasing power of the state of Florida," Reno told the group at the Fountains. "If the pharmaceutical companies said no, and told us to go fly a kite, we'd say you'll have to get prior approval before doctors prescribe their medications."

She also threatened to publish the names and products of drugmakers that refused to negotiate, in an attempt to pressure them. And companies that didn't negotiate would see their drugs knocked off the list of approved drugs for state programs.

Reno also advocated requiring drug companies to disclose all expenses related to indirect advertising to physicians, including entertainment, meals, junkets, samples and other goodies.

"She said everything we wanted to hear, and she has a nice way of presenting it," said Jeanette Kennard, 87, a resident at Park Club of Brandon. "She's not fiddling around."

At her first stop of the day, a meeting of officials from Hillsborough chambers of commerce in Brandon, Reno said she also favored mandatory staffing requirements for hospitals and nursing homes.

Her remarks came in response to a question from Mike Fencel, chief executive at Brandon Regional Hospital, who expressed skepticism at her answer.

The health care industry opposes mandatory nurse-per-patient ratios because of the cost, but Reno pressed on.

"I think it's imperative that we add the staffing ratios because there's got to be some checks and balances," Reno said. "Something is clearly wrong."

Reno faces Tampa lawyer Bill McBride, her closest challenger, and state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami in the Sept. 10 primary. The winner will take on Bush in November.

McBride declined to comment on Reno's drug plan, but he said he would release his own version soon.