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Bill would aid seniors with cost of drugs

by Shawn Gainer

STAFF WRITER

CHARLESTON -- Area Legislators said Monday they are supportive of Governor Cecil Underwood's proposals to help senior citizens with prescription costs and in-home health care.

However, two Harrison County Delegates added they hope the proposals are not "empty rhetoric."

During his State of the State Address, Underwood proposed increased funding for eligible seniors in need of in-home services and creating a task force to examine options for helping senior citizens cover the increasing costs of prescription drugs. Those proposals appear to have a broad base of support in the Legislature.

"I'm supportive of the idea," Del. Larry Linch, D-Harrison, said of the prescription drug task force proposal. "I just hope it's not just another board that sits around and does nothing. I hope the Governor proposes legislation and gives us a chance to act on it."

Del. Frank Angotti, D-Harrison, said such help is owed to the generations that fought in two World Wars and endured the Great Depression.

"It's about time we start helping less-fortunate seniors with co-pays on pharmaceuticals and providing in-home heath care, so if they become ill, they can at least spend their remaining time in the dignity of their homes," Angotti said.

Given the rapid and continuous rise of prescription costs, helping seniors with co-pays could be an expensive proposition for the state. However, Sen. Joe Minard, D-Harrison, said it could be done if the state could find federal matching funds for such a program.

"We haven't drafted legislation yet, but I'm sure we'll come up with ideas of our own," Minard said. "To my way of thinking, one possibility would be through the federal 3 to 1 match for Medicaid. Another would be to use money from taxes on health care providers and get a federal 3 to 1 match."

A less clear possibility would be using some of the estimated $28 million in tobacco settlement money the state will receive in 2000. At this time, the guidelines for how the money can be spent are unclear and there are pending court cases over expenditures of tobacco settlement money in other states, said Minard and Del. Sam Cann, D-Harrison.

"We have Cann allocated a certain part of it to tobacco education. Another part will go to PEIA. Can it be used to get matching federal funds? We need to get a legal opinion to answer that question," Minard said.

"It would be a massive program," he added. "If we can't find a revenue source to pay for it, we're just blowin' in the wind."

"With prescriptions, we are caught in the midst of a national problem. It hits everybody, not just seniors," said Cann. "I hope the task force is more than rhetoric. We need to use whatever funds are available to at least give supplemental help."

Cann added he hopes the prescription cost problem will be somewhat eased by the establishment of a $500 minimum monthly benefit for retired state employees.

"These are things that at least begin to help," Cann said. "I hope we'll eventually be able to do more."

In-home care is another matter because it would cost the state far less than providing aid for nursing home care, Cann and Minard said.

"Expanding in-home care is a win-win situation," Cann said. "Most people would be more comfortable staying at home and it's economically better for the state."

Minard said in-home services could be provided for one-tenth the cost of nursing home care, which can cost as much as $3,500 per month.

"All many of them need is someone to help them cook, clean house and bathe," Minard said. "I think many seniors would prefer to stay home."

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