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Language for prescription drug issue unanimously approved

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COLUMBUS — They may be fighting on the airwaves, but both sides of a controversial prescription drug issue on Thursday compromised on language that will greet voters at the ballot box.

That may decrease the chance of litigation prior to voters having their say on Nov. 7, but potential litigation after the vote remains an issue in the ballot language itself.

The bipartisan Ohio Ballot Board unanimously approved the language for contentious Issue 2, which would tie state spending for prescription drugs to what the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays, as well as for Issue 1 — the so-far uncontroversial measure to etch a victims’ bill of rights into the Ohio Constitution.

Such mediation prior to a ballot board meeting was unprecedented. The board writes the summary language that, in many cases, is the first description of a proposed state law or constitutional amendment that voters will see.

“This has the potential to be a very high profile, contentious, and expensive ballot issue,” said Secretary of State Jon Husted, the board’s chairman. “Having experienced those things in the past, we thought we would try something new this time.”

In the past, parties on both sides would try to influence the board to include provisions or trigger words in the ballot summaries that they hoped would elicit the responses they want from voters.

Issue 2, the so-called Ohio Drug Price Relief Act, will appear on the ballot with two summary bullet points noting generally that:

● The state and its agencies would not pay more for prescription drugs than the V.A. does.

● Ohio’s attorney general would be obligated to defend the law against challenges in court. Petitioners behind it would have legal standing in such cases with taxpayers covering their legal fees. Should the law be struck in court as unenforceable, petitioners would pay the state $10,000.

“… [It] gives the four petitioners — three of whom work for (Michael) Weinstein, the California health-care CEO who is footing the bill for this — this unprecedented right to intervene in any legal challenge that might be filed against this law if it passes and requires the taxpayers of Ohio to pay their legal fees,” said Dale Butland, spokesman for Ohioans Against the Deceptive Rx Ballot Issue.

“That could get expensive for taxpayers because Mr. Weinstein has filed 52 lawsuits in seven states against government entities,” he said.

Dennis Willard, spokesman for Ohio Taxpayers for Lower Drug Prices, said, “They’re making a big issue out of every little thing because they don’t have a good answer to the fact that voting “yes” on Issue 2 would lower drug prices for 4 million Ohioans and save taxpayers $400 million.

“After we win in November, if someone sues — and the only people who would sue would be the drug companies who are trying to protect their profits — the people who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to save taxpayers $400 million would have a right to be in the courtroom, too,” he said.

If passed, the citizen-initiated statute, unlike a constitutional amendment, could be amended or repealed by lawmakers at any time.

The issue has been the subject of TV ad wars for months as opponents argue that such a law could have the opposite effect of raising prescription drug prices for vulnerable populations while proponents claim such arguments are being pushed by drug manufacturers who seek to protect their bottom lines.

The ballot board also wrote the summary language that will greet voters on Issue 1, the so-called Marsy’s Law that would spell out the rights of victims in crime proceedings.

Unlike Issue 2, there has been no organized opposition. Issue 1 has been largely financed by Henry T. Nicholas, a California tech entrepreneur born in Cincinnati, in memory of his sister, Marsalee Ann. The college student was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983.

Contact Jim Provance at jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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