Senate Health Panel Sends Pharma Bill to Rules Committee

Ernie Pennyfeather and Carla Benjamin of Human Services testify on Bill 33-0094. (Photo by Barry Leedam, USVI Legislature)
Ernie Pennyfeather and Carla Benjamin of Human Services testify on Bill 33-0094. (Photo by Barry Leedam, USVI Legislature)

More adult residents will be eligible for financial assistance for their prescription medications if a bill, crafted by Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw, moves through the Rules and Judiciary Committee and the full body of the 33rd Legislature.

Bill No. 33-0094 would include adults with cancer and degenerative diseases under the Department of Human Services Pharmaceutical Assistance Program. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services recognizes the program as a state pharmaceutical assistance program.

Children suffering from cancer and degenerative diseases are already covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program under the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Sarauw pointed out that there is usually a substantial carry over of funds from the pharmacy program at the end of the year, and “the intention here today is to include another demographic.”

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All members of the Health, Hospitals and Human Services committee present on Wednesday supported the bill: Committee chairman Sen. Oakland Benta, Sarauw, Donna Frett-Gregory, Marvin Blyden and Kenneth Gittens. Sen. Novelle Francis, senate president, and Sen. Alicia Barnes also attended Wednesday’s session at the V.I. Cardiac Center.

Carla Benjamin, Human Services assistant commissioner, testified for Commissioner Kimberly Causey-Gomez and said the department supports the bill. There should not be any problems adding people to the program because of the surplus, and the department can impose caps if too many people enroll. Currently, pharmacy patients pay $6 for the first prescription and $1 thereafter.

Benjamin also pointed out that V.I. law covers cancer patients, but the Cancer Care Program is not funded.

Senators seemed familiar with the bill, and since all said they would support it, there were only a few questions and comments.

Francis was concerned whether certain individuals, such as cancer patients over the age of 60 and patients with renal failure, would qualify for the program, noting there is “a lot of illness in the territory.” Benjamin said physician referrals would be needed.

To qualify for the pharmaceutical program, applicants must be at least 60-years-old or disabled. They must also offer proof of residency, age, income and medical diagnosis.

Gittens and Benta wanted to know how the department could implement the bill.

Rules and regulations would be rewritten by Human Services senior staff, and a few more staff members would need to be hired, Benjamin said. A thorough public information campaign would then teach the public about aggressive chronic disease and eligibility, Ernie Pennyfeather, administrator for the Division of Senior Citizens Affairs, added.

After Benjamin said she has not had discussions about the Cigna Insurance Company’s Wellness Center, Benta suggested the department “hone in on this” as Cigna offers some discounted health preventative services and products.

When asked by Sen. Barnes about alternative treatments being covered, Benjamin answered “mainstream medicine” is covered. She added that as assistant commissioner, she can not make the decision to include alternatives but said it sounded like something the department would want to consider.

“It’s something I intend to champion because we have a lot of persons suffering from a host of ailments in the territory that would rather not deal with pharmaceuticals, but access to nutraceuticals or other alternative treatments are cost prohibitive,” she said.

Before the final vote, Sarauw added an amendment suggested by Benjamin to substitute the ages to be covered by a new law to 18 to 59, since children and seniors are covered by federal plans.

Although the vote was unanimous to forward the bill to the Rules and Judiciary Committee, discussion of Bill 33-0024 was postponed until Sept. 11.

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