Company disputes Taft letter on prescription program

By JOHN McCARTHY, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - One of the four top drug companies that Gov. Bob Taft scolded for backing out of promises to take part in his Golden Buckeye prescription drug plan disputed the governor's contention that it committed to participate.

In letters to the companies, Taft said Pfizer Inc., along with AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, GlaxoSmithKline and Merck & Co., were not honoring commitments to provide discounts for Ohioans 60 and over on their prescription drugs.

"While Pfizer has never made a commitment to participate in the Golden Buckeye program as Governor Taft asserts, we have been in dialogue with the governor's office for several months over innovative ways to improve access to our medicines for Ohio seniors," Pfizer said Tuesday in a response to Taft's letter.

Taft spokeswoman Mary Anne Sharkey said while she did not know specifically what commitment Pfizer had made to the program, the governor understood that the company would participate.

"MemberHealth clearly felt they had a commitment. That certainly was the way it was represented to the governor," Sharkey said about the northeast Ohio company managing the program for the state.

MemberHealth President Chuck Hallberg said he received assurances last fall that the four companies would take part, but the commitments began to wane in early December.

Pfizer offers discount programs for seniors and disabled Ohioans and for families with incomes under $25,000 who have no prescription coverage, the company said.

In his letters, Taft gave the companies a Friday deadline to comply with his demand that they provide discounts through the Golden Buckeye plan or through their own card plans.

If they fail to do so, Taft said he will ask Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro to investigate whether the companies have violated antitrust laws. Taft also said he could be forced to support legislation requiring the state to negotiate prescription rebates with drug makers or a similar plan.

The Golden Buckeye program provides discounts ranging from 13 percent to 21 percent on name-brand prescription drugs and 23 percent to 43 percent on generic and mail-ordered drugs. Any Ohioan 60 or older can get a Golden Buckeye card.

Pfizer said it was "considering options that may meet the governor's call for a 'unique' approach that would link the Golden Buckeye program to our own successful programs."

Merck & Co. was in discussions with Taft's representatives about "possible participation" in the Golden Buckeye program, Merck spokesman Chris Loder said Tuesday. GlaxoSmithKline is also in discussions with the governor's staff but no decision has been made yet to participate, a spokesman said.

Rachel Bloom of AstraZeneca told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer that the Taft letter is still under review.

"Outside of the federal Medicaid drug rebate program, which is a mandatory rebate, it is not mandatory for any company to provide rebates to a state either for seniors or any other population groups," she said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)