Lawmakers question timing of drug plan switch

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(Host) The Douglas administration wants to switch Vermonters to a new federal drug plan next month. But advocates and some lawmakers warn that the state doesn’t have a strong enough safety net in place in case the transition fails.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) When the federal government launched the new Medicare drug benefit in January, the system failed to work for thousands of Vermonters who were previously on a state-run program. Elderly and disabled people couldn’t get their prescriptions filled. And they encountered long delays in trying to sign up for the new benefits.

So the state stepped in and put these 30,000 Vermonters back on the state pharmacy program. Now Governor Douglas says it’s time to switch these people over to the new federal Medicare plan.

(Douglas) “I think we’ve taken steps to ensure that it will be generally successful. I want to make it very clear that it won’t be problem-free. No large enterprise like that will be.”

(Dillon) Douglas wants to shift people back to the federal plan on March 8. That worries some lawmakers because the transition falls during Town Meeting week, when the Legislature is not in session. Representative Anne Pugh is a Democrat from South Burlington. She chairs the House Human Services Committee.

(Pugh) “I think it is important to just wait until the 13. It is four more days, five more days. Wait until the Legislature is in the building. It will give advocates and people in the field more confidence that they will be heard and that there will be a quick avenue for redress if there is any kind of similar problems that there were in January.”

(Dillon) But Douglas says there’s some urgency because the federal government won’t reimburse states for costs incurred for the drug plan after March 8. And he says lawmakers don’t need to be around for the state to deal with any problems.

(Douglas) “With all due respect, are the legislators going to man the crisis phone lines? I’m not sure why we need the Legislature here.”

(Dillon) The state plans to set up a crisis center to deal with any problems. But lawmakers and advocates say the state doesn’t have a safety net in place in case people can’t get their prescriptions filled. Michael Sirotkin represents the Community of Vermont Elders.

(Sirotkin) “What the state has to have is a fail-safe provision for these hundreds of seniors who will be falling through the cracks, who will not be in the computer system and have a back up plan to make sure those folks do not leave the pharmacy counter without a small supply at least of their medications.”

(Dillon) Lawmakers say they’re waiting to hear back from the administration on how it plans to help Vermonters who can’t get their prescriptions filled next month. They say nobody should be in the position of walking away from the drug store without their needed medicine.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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