February 12. 2003 8:30AM
Associated Press Writer
Montye Conlan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis four years ago. The medicines she must take for the rest of her life cost about $1,000 a month.
Conlan, a former science teacher on disability, lives in Ormond-by-the-Sea on a monthly income of $860 a month. A program known as "Medically Needy" pays for the medicines she needs.
But Medically Needy may be cut by state lawmakers.
"I am here in Tallahassee asking that legislators preserve the Medically Needy safety net for me and for others like me," Conlan, 49, said at a Capitol news conference Tuesday.
Medically Needy provides health care to people with catastrophic illnesses who can't get private insurance because of their health status and who make too much money to qualify for general Medicaid, the joint federal-state health care program for people in nursing homes and some poor families.
The 27,000 people enrolled in the program have conditions such as MS, cancer, diabetes or have had organ transplants.
The program costs $368 million but the federal government picks up most of the bill. State government pays $116 million a year.
Last year, lawmakers managed to keep Medically Needy in the budget but they enacted changes, to take effect in May, that will save the state $78 million but require the people enrolled in Medically Needy to pick up more of the cost.
Under that change, people must spend all of their income on medicines except $450 before Medically Needy will kick in.
Medically Needy could be eliminated altogether starting July 1; Gov. Jeb Bush has recommended replacing it with a prescription drug-assistance program.
Advocates at Tuesday's news conference said they feared the governor's drug proposal wouldn't do enough to help people who qualify, and that too many would fall through the cracks.
"We're not talking about wealthy people," said Anne Swerlick, deputy director of Florida Legal Services. Most people in the program worked and qualified for either disability or retirement benefits and, on average, have a monthly income of $717.
The changes facing people on Medically Needy would require some to choose between their medicine and food and rent, she said.
"The choices that the Legislature is being asked to make are literally a matter of life and death for many Medically Needy beneficiaries," Swerlick said.
Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican on the House Health Appropriations subcommittee, knows firsthand how important medicines can be. Her husband was critically ill two years ago and received a kidney transplant.
The drugs he needs cost $1,500 a month, Harrell said. She said preservation of the Medically Needy program was "critically important."
"We are talking here about people's lives," she said. "Without that
medicine they will not live."
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