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Legislators jump gun in touting drug benefit

Several dozen Florida legislators, including a handful from the Tampa Bay area, spent tens of thousands of tax dollars last year to mail postcards to seniors promoting their efforts to help them buy less expensive drugs.

"Your Legislature Protected Florida Seniors," the four-color postcards said.

The price? $64,083.

The problem? The program doesn't yet exist.

Its launch has been delayed indefinitely by the Bush administration in Washington because of the Medicare drug plan Congress passed in November.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has said it needs to understand the new Medicare plan, which doesn't begin until 2006, before it will sign off on Florida's plan to expand its Medicaid program to help more seniors buy drugs. Florida had planned to launch the program Jan. 1.

Legislators said they weren't aware of a possible delay last year when House Speaker Johnnie Byrd's office offered to print postcards for each member's district promoting the plan. House records show 69 lawmakers _ 62 Republicans and seven Democrats _ accepted Byrd's offer. There are 120 members of the Florida House and 40 in the Senate.

"After all these years, no one expected something like that could happen on the federal level," said Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, whose office sent out the postcards. "I thought I'd be doing a tremendous service to those choosing between meals and prescriptions."

Instead, when seniors call the number listed on the postcard to learn more about Lifesaver Rx, the state's Agency for Health Care Administration tells them the program has not been funded and to call back in a month.

The postcards also outline two other services: the creation of a hot line that provides information on drug companies' discount programs and a long-established program that provides subsidized home telephone service for the poor.

"You can certainly go and try to criticize what we did," Byrd, R-Plant City, said, "but we're just trying to communicate all the good things we do to help people."

State Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, who sent the postcards, said she had not heard any complaints about the program's delay but is frustrated by it.

Those expected to benefit from the Lifesaver proposal are single seniors whose annual income is no more than $17,960, and couples whose income is no more than $24,240.

The proposal would provide discounts of 37 percent to 50 percent on drug prices. That's in addition to the state's Silver Saver plan, which provides monthly subsidies of up to $160 for 51,106 seniors whose income is no more than $10,776 as an individual or $14,544 as a couple.

The Florida plan is considered more generous than the one passed by Congress in November. Florida's plan requires companies to discount drug prices for individuals who often pay full price. The congressional plan will provide up to $600 monthly for Medicare recipients to buy drugs.

"I think the entire Legislature and the governor need to make good on this promise soon," said Rep. Dan Gelber, the Miami Beach Democrat who introduced the legislation that enjoyed rare bipartisan support.

Gelber said he did not get any postcards and has delayed sending out his regular district newsletter until he is sure LifeSaver is available. "I just hope the people most proud of the program and publicizing it would be equally enthusiastic about making sure the promise is kept," he said.

Besides Farkas and Murman, House records show 10 other Tampa Bay lawmakers sent postcards: Reps. Tom Anderson, R-Dunedin; Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor; Faye Culp, R-Tampa; Charles Dean, R-Inverness; Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton; Edward Homan, R-Tampa; Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton; Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland; David Russell, R-Brooksville; and Leslie Waters, R-Seminole.