"Every day in Virginia, we have elderly people making the decision to buy groceries, pay the rent or buy prescription drugs," said Del. Kenneth Plum (D-36).
In response, Plum introduced a bill in the General Assembly, which would have raised the cigarette tax by 50 cents to pay for a Virginia Prescription Drug Payment Assistance Plan, to help elderly and disabled Virginians pay for prescription drugs.
As of Thursday, the bill was effectively dead and as a result more than 200,000 people throughout the state will continue to have to choose between food, rent and medications, Plum said.
PLUM'S BILL, as proposed, would have helped people with incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level or have prescription drug expenses that exceed 40 percent of their annual income and are ineligible for Medicare prescription benefits to fulfill their medication needs. The federal poverty level in 2002 was $8,860 for a single person and $18,100 for a family of four.
Participants in the plan would be required to make a copayment for each prescription, which would not exceed 25 percent of the cost, but not less than $5. The rest would be paid by the increased cigarette tax, or "user's fee" as Plum calls it. Administrative costs would have been covered by pharmaceutical manufacturers rebates and a $20 annual enrollment fee.
The financial impact study for the bill found the cigarette tax would only have to be increased 30 cents to fully fund the plan. Virginia, with a 2.5 cents tax on cigarettes, is the lowest in the country. Plum said the national average is 60 cents per pack.
The bill was referred to the House Committee on Finance Jan. 21, where it will remain until the end of the session, said Plum.
"Anything that starts with a T is not going to pass this session," Plum said. "Some would say we should not raise taxes in an election year. I say, we should fund our core service of government."
"What we're talking about is helping people," said Tony Hylton, director of communication for AARP Virginia. "The program would help some elderly, low-income elderly, disabled, the working poor. About 32 other states already have these plans."
Plum said there are about 203,000 people in the state who are making too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but don't make enough to live on. His bill was aimed at helping them. According to the Fairfax County website, 4.6 percent of the population in 2001, the most recent figures available, was below the poverty level. For the same time period, 8.2 percent of the population was aged 65 years and older. The total population at that time was 984,366 people.
"AMONG AARP VIRGINIA MEMBERS, 61 percent say an adequate prescription dug plan is a top priority," said Hylton, who is also a Reston resident. "We had hoped to get the plan approved."
Hylton said it is hard to know exactly how many people the bill could have helped, because records only reflect those who have sought assistance.
"Costs vary, depending on the medication," Hylton said, as to the financial impact on seniors. "The elderly have about 12 to 18 prescriptions filled each year. That could be the same prescription filled repeatedly or different medications."
During her testimony before the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare Jan. 21, Dr. Ruth Nelson, president of AARP Virginia, said the group had commissioned an "outside supplier" to survey 803 Virginias, 18 years old and older to gauge their priority on health-care programs. She said the study found that 52 percent believe the state's health and long-term-care programs are under funded. The survey found that 93 percent believe it is important to maintain current levels of funding for health and long-term-care programs; and that 61 percent supported a cigarette tax hike of 60 cents per pack to fund these programs.
"On behalf of our most vulnerable Virginias, we have come today, wearing our message, 'Health-care cuts do not heal,'" Nelson said. "In behalf of 900,000 members and 93 chapters of AARP members in the Commonwealth, we call on you to find revenues to give us an adequate prescription drug assistance plan for low-income Virginians."
Hylton said he expects the issue of a prescription drug assistance plan will not die with the end of the session in February. He said AARP members will make sure it remains an issue in the November, when all of the House and Senate members are up for re-election.
Plum said he does not hold out hope for the bill in future sessions, unless some changes are made in the make-up of the General Assembly.
"If the people elect more of the crowd we have here now, we won't get much done," Plum said.