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Medication initiative approved for ballot.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

SALEM - Oregonians without drug coverage could get big savings on their medications under an initiative approved Wednesday for the fall ballot.

The determination that enough signatures had been gathered signaled a small victory for chief sponsor and state Sen. Bill Morrisette. The Springfield Democrat has pushed for years for the state to bulk purchase drugs so the savings could be passed along to uninsured consumers.

"It is very gratifying to move it to this point. This is the launching pad, so to speak, for a very much expanded program," said Morrisette, one of two chief petitioners for the measure. He pushed for passage of a 2003 bill that launched bulk-purchasing by the state for low-income seniors without drug coverage and government entities. Two years later, Morrisette's efforts to expand the program to all Oregonians without drug coverage met insurmountable opposition from lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry.

At first blush, it appeared the drug industry would not put much effort into fighting the Oregon initiative. In a prepared statement, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, or PhRMA, said it preferred programs in which drug prices were negotiated through private insurance plans rather than the government. "Nevertheless, it is certainly Oregon's prerogative to pursue a government-based coverage plan," PhRMA Senior Vice President Ken Johnson was quoted as saying. "In the end, we all want the same thing: better access to life-saving medicines and quality care for all Americans."

The initiative would expand the existing Oregon Prescription Drug Program, which saves eligible Oregonians up to 60 percent on medications through discounts and rebates.

By buying drugs in bulk, the state program is able to bargain for below-market prices.

The program is now open to anyone 54 and older who earns less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level - about $19,100 for a single person.

It's also open to local schools, governments and state agencies that buy prescription drugs.

The initiative would eliminate age and income requirements and abolish waiting periods, which would open up the program to more than 750,000 Oregonians who don't have health insurance or don't have a drug benefit in their plan.

The measure was one of several proposed for the ballot dealing with rising costs of health care and the growing ranks of Oregonians without medical insurance.

Only two such proposals made it to the state Elections Division with petition signature sheets by the July 7 deadline. And of those, the drug-coverage is the first - and could be the only - one to win approval for the Nov. 7 ballot. The other measure, which declares health care a fundamental right and requires the Legislature to expand coverage, is considered a long-shot to make the ballot because of the relatively low number of petition signatures submitted.

"This might be the only health care measure on the ballot," said supporter Maribeth Healey, executive director of the labor-backed Oregonians for Health Security. "But it's such a great opportunity for Oregonians to reduce the cost of prescription drugs and have something positive to vote for."

Morrisette co-sponsored the initiative petitions along with AARP of Oregon Director Jerry Cohen. A flurry of contributions from labor and others to hire paid signature gatherers and a mass mailing of petitions to AARP members in the final month before the signature turn-in deadline produced a surge of more than 70,000 signatures, supporters said.

After ruling invalid the signatures that didn't meet legal scrutiny - including those that came from individuals who signed multiple times or weren't registered voters - the Oregon Elections Division determined that 83,409 were valid. That exceeded the 75,630 signatures required for the measure.

News of the initiative's ballot approval reached Healey, Morrisette and other supporters as they were wrapping up a media event in Portland on the topic of prescription drug costs. At the event, Gov. Ted Kulongoski announced Oregon and Washington would be joining their state bulk-purchasing programs to form the Northwest Prescription Drug Consortium. The new entity was touted as a means of combining and increasing the two states' clout to negotiate for deeper discounts from the drug industry.

The same event also highlighted a report called the Oregon Blueprint, which was published by the Heinz Family Foundation and released Wednesday. It said Oregon could save up to $17 million per year by consolidating the

purchase of prescription drugs, ensuring more transparency and accountability in prescription-drug purchasing contracts, and doing a better job of coordinating drug utilization and using management tools.
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Title Annotation:Elections; The measure would allow Oregon to bulk purchase prescription drugs
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 27, 2006
Words:748
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