JUNEAU - Gov. Tony Knowles has created a task force to study the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs in Alaska.
The seven-member task force will have until Oct. 1 to make recommendations and provide a cost estimate for a proposed prescription drug cost assistance program in the state.
Knowles cited a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that showed Alaska has the fastest growing prescription drug prices in the nation.
That study, released in June, shows spending on prescription drugs jumped more than 25 percent in Alaska last year, but only 17.3 percent nationwide.
"Prescription drug prices are growing so fast that we can't wait any longer, it's time to take action," Knowles said.
The task force was created in part at the urging of Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, a Democrat candidate for governor, Knowles said.
The battle over prescription drug costs to the elderly is in the national spotlight and figures to be a key issue in several political races around the country.
Ulmer vowed to push for a prescription drug initiative in her campaign kickoff speech in June. In the speech, Ulmer said she wants to curb prescription drug costs through negotiations with drug companies.
On Friday, she said she had no definite plan to arrest the rising costs but looked forward to the task force report.
Her likely Republican opponent, U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, chided Senate Democrats on Friday for failing to pass a $300 billion plan to extend drug benefits to Medicare recipients.
Murkowski called the Democrat's plan to provide such benefits only to indigent seniors "a cruel hoax" and voted against it this week. Senate Republicans favored a plan to provide $370 billion for prescription drugs.
Medicaid spending on prescription drugs in Alaska was $62 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30. The state's share of that federal program was between $25 million and $30 million, said Bob Labbe, director for the state Division of Medical Assistance.
While Congress continues to debate a drug plan for Medicare recipients, several states have taken up their own programs, said Pat Luby, of the American Association for Retired Persons.
In all, 36 states have addressed the cost of prescription drugs while 26 of those have some program to help defray the costs, he said.
"There are states that have done things that don't cost any money," said Luby.
The task force includes representatives from three departments in state government, Bob Albertson, a licensed pharmacist with the Alaska Pioneers' and Veterans' Home system, and Jeff Davis, vice president and general manager of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska.
The panel also includes Luby and another Alaska senior citizen to be named later, the governor's office said.
Knowles executive order is similar to legislation offered this past session by Rep. Joe Hayes, D-Fairbanks, and Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage. Both bills died without a vote by the Legislature.