The state gets a drug benefit

INTRO TEXT

While many senior citizens are still trying to figure out whether they’ll come out ahead under the complicated Medicare prescription drug benefit passed by Congress, the new law will yield a big windfall for at least one drug buyer: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

By signing up lower-income Massachusetts seniors for new Medicare-sponsored drug discount cards, state officials think they may save the state-run Prescription Advantage program up to $15 million. The drug discount cards, which went into effect June 1, provide a $600 annual subsidy for seniors with income below 135 percent of the federal poverty level ($12,569 for an individual; $16,862 for a married couple).

Of the 88,000 seniors enrolled in Prescription Advantage, state officials say about 35,000 qualify for the federal drug subsidy. In May, the Legislature approved a bill to automatically enroll income-eligible Prescription Advantage members in the drug discount card program. That means the federal government, not the state program, will now pick up the tab for their first $600 of annual drug costs. Once seniors have used the $600 subsidy, coverage under Prescription Advantage will kick in.

The question is, what happens next year?
Piggybacking the state program onto the new federal drug assistance is both good news for the state “and good news for seniors,” says Jennifer Davis Carey, the state’s secretary of elder affairs. Because of the savings Massachusetts will reap, state officials plan to designate a one-month open enrollment period for Prescription Advantage beginning September 1, allowing more seniors to sign up for the state program.

The drug discount cards are only a stopgap measure, designed to provide some drug-cost relief to seniors until the actual Medicare drug coverage program begins January 1, 2006. The big question, say senior advocates, is what happens to Prescription Advantage once the federal program is up and running. “My hope would be that Massachusetts do everything permissible to fill in the gaps around the federal benefit,” says Deborah Thomson, a Boston elder law attorney.

But senior advocates aren’t holding their breath. When he took office last year, Gov. Mitt Romney proposed ending Prescription Advantage entirely unless federal funds came through to help support its costs. The state wound up receiving a one-time infusion of federal money to help continue the program, but the new Medicare coverage may provide a fresh opening for Romney to end an expensive state program, slated to receive $110 million in the 2005 budget.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“Gov. Romney has pretty much straight out said [that] when the federal benefit comes in, he wants to end Prescription Advantage,” says Jack Boesen, executive director of Massachusetts Senior Action. “And I think it’s indisputable that the federal benefit is much poorer coverage than the state program.”

Carey insists that no decisions have been made about what happens to state drug coverage after the Medicare benefit takes effect. “We need a full look at what our options are,” she says.