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Democrats fail at adding benefits to senior drug bill

Posted: Tuesday, February 03, 2004

House Democrats tried unsuccessfully Monday to increase the benefits that would be provided under Gov. Frank Murkowski's proposed senior citizen prescription drug bill.

They also tried once more to revive the senior citizen longevity bonus program, forcing Republican majority members to cast another vote on the issue, which Democrats could use against them in this fall's election.

House Bill 374 as proposed by the Murkowski administration would give low-income older Alaskans a choice between two programs - a $120-per-month cash assistance option the administration set up last summer or the new $1,600-per-year prescription drug reimbursement plan.

Democrats proposed nine amendments, but nearly all were defeated.

Rep. Sharon Cissna, an Anchorage Democrat, proposed boosting the prescription benefit to $2,000 a year and Rep. David Guttenberg, a Fairbanks Democrat, pitched a raise in the monthly cash payment to $150.

"I'm not sure if even $150 is enough, but I want to give seniors a little more comfort, a little more cushion in the later part of their lives," Guttenberg said.

Rep. Bill Williams, a Saxman Republican, said the state cannot afford that.

"We know we don't have enough money to fund all these programs that we have today," Williams said.

Only one Democrat amended passed. It would allow seniors to continue receiving the state help if they go into a nursing home or a state pioneers' home, as long as their stay is less than three months and they intend to return to their home.

Otherwise, the bill calls for seniors to lose the cash or prescription benefit once they enter a nursing home or pioneers' home.

A Republican amendment, sponsored by Rep. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican, allows doctors to prescribe non-generic drugs to program recipients as long as the doctor says it's medically necessary. Her amendment removed language requiring a doctor to specify the reason the more expensive drugs are necessary.

Democrats also proposed restoring the senior citizen longevity bonus program, which effectively ended last year when Murkowski vetoed the $45 million needed to fund it.

That program provided monthly checks of up to $250 to senior citizens regardless of income. It was being phased out and applied only to people who had turned 65 by the end of 1996.

Rep. Bob Lynn, an Anchorage Democrat, joined minority Democrats in voting for the amendment, which failed 12-23.

Reps. Tom Anderson, an Anchorage Republican; John Harris, a Valdez Republican; Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat; and Bruce Weyhrauch, were out of the room for that vote. Rep. Cheryll Heinze, an Anchorage Republican, was excused from the floor session.

The bill calls for the cash assistance and prescription drug help to end when a federal prescription drug plan for senior citizens takes effect in January 2006.



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