State Senate leaders yesterday unveiled a plan to give relief to seniors facing
skyrocketing prescription drug costs by earmarking part of a $7.6 billion windfall from
the national tobacco settlement for the cause.
The proposal, which was well received by tobacco control and health care
advocates, also called for the state to put aside at least half the settlement in a trust
fund to pay for future programs. The plan, presented by Senators Mark Montigny and Richard
Moore and Senate President Thomas Birmingham, is expected to be part of the Senate's
budget proposal, which will be released later this week.
The move by Senate leaders is the latest installment in a raging debate over how
Massachusetts should spend the estimated $300 million annual income resulting from the
state attorney general' settlement of a lawsuit against tobacco companies to recover
money the commonwealth spent to treat tobacco-related illnesses.
The legislative House chamber in April proposed setting aside the full proceeds in
a trust fund; only the interest income would be used for health care and antitobacco
programs. Public healt and antitobacco lobbyists were disappointed with the House
plan because interest income in the first few years would be minimal.
"They came up with a plan on how not to spend the money," said Judy
Meredith, a lobbyist for Health Care For All, a patient advocate group. "We were very
disappointed that they had not spent any of the principal on any of the urgent health care
and prevention needs of today."
Governor Paul Cellucci made his own proposal in January, offering to spend all of
the proceeds on health care programs, but no new money in tobacco use prevention. Instead,
the governor asked that $500,000 be spent to evaluate the effectiveness of the state's
current $31.5 million-a-year tobacco prevention efforts. The omission infuriated
antitobacco lobbyists, who said the move was "shocking."
By contrast, the Senate proposal appeared to appease most special interests, from
advocates for seniors and AIDS patients to antismoking campaigners.
"We're thrilled. It's the best of both worlds," said Allison Staton of
Health Care For All. "It contains the fiscal cautiousness of the House proposal, and
it takes advantage of the funds to address urgent needs now."
The Senate plan, among other things, calls for:
- A $30 million increase in the state's Senior Pharmacy Program, which helps
low-income seniors pay for drugs.
- The creation of a $40 million program that would help seniors with extraordinarily
high prescription drug bills.
- A $33.5 million increase in the state's tobacco control programs, including $6
million earmarked toward programs aimed at minority populations who may be
disproportionately affected by tobacco-related diseases.
- An additional $10 million to allow more individuals who are HIV-positive to qualify
for Medicaid coverage.
- A $1.5 million allocation for medication for low-income children.
- A $5 million grant to community health centers.
- A $5 million expansion of school-based health centers.
The centerpiece of the proposal, however, is the program to expand prescription
drug subsidies for senior citizens. The proposal by Montigny, a Democrat from New Bedford
and chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, and Moore, a Democrat from
Uxbridge and cochairman of the joint Health Care Committee, would double program spending
to $60 million a year. It would also double maximum benefits from $750 to $1,500 a year,
allow seniors whose income are below 200 percent of the federal poverty level - up from
150 percent - to qualify, and create a program to assist seniors whose drug bills are
Senior advocates praised the proposal, though they said the details remained
"This proposal spells important relief for low-income seniors," said
Geoff Wilkinson, executive director of Massachusetts Senior Action Council.
The House last month passed its plan to subsidize seniors who are struggling with
their prescription drug expenses, but senior advocates were unhappy with the proposal,
which offered more modest assistance than the Senate plan.
Tina Cassidy of the Globe Staff contributed to this article.