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Ohio lawmakers pushed on prescription-drug bill

COLUMBUS - A coalition led by the Ohio AFL-CIO is pressuring legislators to take action on a bill that would enable state government to try to negotiate lower prescription-drug prices for poorer citizens.

Saying they're tired of waiting for the Republican-controlled General Assembly to act, coalition members plan to decide next month whether to start a petition drive to pressure lawmakers to vote on the bill early next year. If they don't approve the measure, the issue could be placed on the ballot in November, 2003.

The legislation would enable the state to negotiate rebates on prescription drugs for those without insurance or who are underinsured - about 2.2 million people in Ohio, the AFL-CIO estimates.

State Sen. Bob Hagan (D., Youngstown) introduced the legislation in June, 2001. After holding one hearing, Republicans have kept the bill in committee, saying it smacks of big government.

“It's all about big socialist government beating up on the free enterprise system,” said state Sen. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon), head of the Senate Health, Human Services, and Aging Committee.

But supporters say the bill should not be a partisan issue.

“This is not a big government program where the government dictates price; this has to do with the government negotiating a lower price directly with manufacturers,” said Dale Butland, spokesman for the coalition that includes the Ohio United Way, the Ohio Nurses' Association, and the Ohio Council of Churches.

If the state, for example, negotiated a 50-percent rebate with the manufacturer on a prescription drug, the customer would pay 50 percent of the price and the pharmacist would bill the state for the remaining 50 percent.

The state then would pay the pharmacists from rebates it gets from drug firms, said Bernie Horn, policy director for a Washington think tank, the Center for Policy Alternatives. The state's cost of administering the program would be covered from those rebates, said Mr. Horn, in Columbus yesterday to discuss state efforts to lower prescription-drug prices.

Mr. Hagan's bill is patterned after the one that the Maine legislature approved - which was put on hold last year because of a lawsuit filed by the trade group representing pharmaceutical companies. Hawaii recently adopted its own version, and similar measures may pass in Vermont and Minnesota this year, Mr. Horn said.

To force the legislature to at least consider the bill, the AFL-CIO and other coalition members would be required to collect at least 100,628 signatures of registered voters. If the legislature amended the bill or took no action within four months, the petitioners could collect more signatures to place the issue on the November, 2003, ballot.

“It's another tool to bring some pressure on this irresponsible legislature,” said Bill Burga, Ohio AFL-CIO president.

Mary Anne Sharkey, Taft press secretary, said he doesn't have a stance on the bill. She said he is focused on getting the Senate to pass a bill to offer a discount-drug program for those who are 60 and older, and the disabled.

Mr. Burga said he's talked to Mr. Taft twice about the prescription-drug bill that Mr. Hagan introduced last year. Mr. Hagan's brother, Tim, is the Democratic candidate for governor, and he backs the bill.

“[Mr. Taft] said he was concerned about whether it would cost the state anything. I said, `Governor, if you analyze it, what minimal cost there would be to the state it could recoup,' ” Mr. Burga said.

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