HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell is proposing to allow an additional 30,000 seniors to enroll in the state's prescription-drug program for older residents, a move called essential to helping them survive the difficult economic times.

Rendell said yesterday that he is working with House Democrats to push through legislation that would raise the current income eligibility limits for seniors to qualify for the state's popular PACENET program.

The governor said the expansion should be "a slam-dunk," since it won't cost taxpayers a dime. He intends to fund it solely by cost-saving moves within the program.

"Just because we're facing a crisis, that's not the time to turn our back on people," Rendell said yesterday at a Capitol news conference. "Rather, that's the time to help people to the extent we can."

Rendell's proposal would increase the PACENET income limits for single seniors from $23,500 to $30,000 and for married couples from $31,500 to $40,000.

If approved by the legislature, it would allow an additional 30,000 people to join the program, which now covers about 220,000 people 65 and older.

The proposal would also increase the amount the state pays to pharmacies when they fill out PACENET prescriptions: from $4 to $7 for brand-name drugs and from $4 to $12 for generic medications.

Rendell said he would pay for the expansion of the program - funded by the Pennsylvania Lottery - by requiring pharmaceutical companies to give the state the same drug rebates that it gives to the federal government's Medicaid program. The state, which Rendell said is the nation's fourth-largest buyer of prescription drugs, would also begin compensating pharmacies for medications based on the price they actually paid for them, rather than the manufacturer's suggested retail price.

Those changes would help generate roughly $60 million in savings, enough to cover the new enrollees, he said.

Rendell said he wants the legislature to approve the proposed expansion before it breaks for the summer.

House Minority Leader Sam Smith said yesterday that he is skeptical of the notion that the program could be expanded so greatly without the state paying more.

"That kind of falls into the category that if it's too good to be true, you really ought to think twice about it," said Smith (R., Jefferson). "I'm a little suspect that there is a tooth fairy out there willing to just give out more prescriptions that don't cost anybody anything."

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), said, "We understand the claim that there will be savings, but we are very concerned about the stability of the lottery fund.

"It would be imprudent to move forward without thoroughly analyzing the potential long-term impact," he added.

House Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne) said yesterday that the expansion was needed because more seniors are being forced to go back to work to make ends meet during the recession, but that extra income has made many of them ineligible to continue participating in PACENET.

"This is an advance during very difficult times to address very difficult issues," said Eachus, who has spearheaded similar health measures in the past.

Jean Rummel, 72, and her husband were among those who were suddenly knocked out of PACENET - about six months ago - because, they were told, they earned just $100 over the upper income limit.

Rummel, who lives outside Harrisburg, said her husband is a diabetic and takes seven medications. Just one of those drugs now costs him $76 monthly, compared with the less than $10 he used to pay when they were in PACENET.

"It really helped us out in the past," she said. "It would be great to be back in the program."

Enrollees pay about $25 a month to be part of PACENET, which allows them to pay $8 for generic and $15 for brand-name prescriptions.

Over the last year, the state has turned down about 8,000 people who wanted to join PACENET but made too much money, said Tom Snedden, who runs the program.

Overall, they pay about 15 percent of the cost of their annual drug bills, compared with Medicare Part D enrollees, who pay about 50 percent, he added.

The state chapter of AARP lauded the idea.

Ray Landis, advocacy manager for AARP Pennsylvania, said it targets a group of seniors who are finding that their incomes aren't the same as just a year or two ago. Their retirement investments have gone sour and many have taken part-time work to pay for their medications or to afford the more expensive Medicare Part D program, Landis said.

"The money they have put away is not there anymore," he said. "This will allow more people to take advantage of the best assistance drug program in the United States."

'There Is No Silver Bullet'

Gov. Rendell yesterday updated reporters on negotiations over the fiscal 2009-10 budget.

The governor said he remained committed to doing everything possible to enact a balanced budget without increasing the personal income tax. But he said he couldn't rule the option out, given revenue figures putting the projected state deficit at $3.2 billion.

"At this stage, given what has happened, nothing is off the table. Everything has to be looked at," he said. "We will do what is necessary. There is no silver bullet. There is no rabbit to pull out of a hat."

EndText

Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.