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House passes prescription drug package

The Florida House passed a prescription drug package Tuesday that could save lower income seniors as much as 60 percent on their drug costs and directs them to additional benefits offered by drug companies.

House members unanimously approved the two bills, (HB1 and HB843) and sent them to the Senate. The two bills were the first approved by the House in this legislative session.

"Members, kumbaya," said package co-sponsor Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.

But he may not be singing when the package hits the Senate. Led by Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, senators have said they are concerned about the prescription assistance bill's $30-million price tag, of which $11-million must come from the state's general fund.

In an attempt to appease the Senate, House budget chief Rep. Bruce Kyle announced that state economists have shaved $30-million off their estimate for next year's Medicaid costs, thus freeing up money for prescription assistance.

"That problem has been solved," said Kyle, R-Fort Myers. "This is money the Senate and House were unaware of."

But King said if, in fact, an additional $30-million has been found, it should go to existing programs instead of new ones.

"On its merits, it's good," King said, but he added, "The new program is just that _ a new program."

The other bill, in which seniors use one application to apply for dozens of private drug assistance programs offered by pharmaceutical companies, is expected to pass the Senate without trouble. That bill has minimal costs.

One by one, House members of both parties lined up to praise the prescription package, the only hint of criticism coming from Democrats who thought the bill could go further. Depending on income level, qualified seniors would see between 37 percent and 60 percent discounts on their prescriptions.

"This will help 250,000 seniors. But I want to remind people that this is just a start," said Rep. Nan Rich, D-Weston. The prescription assistance bill provides benefits for seniors who earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $24,240 for a couple.

Some Democrats want to take that up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $36,360 for a couple, which could reach more than 1-million seniors in Florida.