- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003


The Supreme Court gave a green light yesterday to a novel state program to force drug manufacturers to lower prices on prescription drugs, but said the program might not survive further court challenges.

The 6-3 ruling was a defeat for drug makers who charged that Maine’s program, called Maine Rx, violates federal law.

The program, which has never taken effect, would use the state’s buying power under the federal Medicaid law to cut drug prices by 25 percent for the working poor, retirees and others who do not receive health coverage or drug benefits through their jobs.

The Supreme Court’s ruling does not give Maine what it really wanted, an unqualified endorsement of the drug plan. Instead, the high court said drug makers did not adequately show why the plan should be prevented from taking effect. It has been on hold pending the court fight.

“By no means will our answer to that question finally determine the validity of Maine’s Rx program,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.

Only Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg fully agreed with Justice Stevens’ analysis of the benefits of the Maine program, but an additional three justices agreed that the program should have a chance to take effect.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy dissented on that point. They would have left in place a lower-court order blocking the program.

Maine Rx, enacted in 2000, would let the state negotiate for lower prices on behalf of more than 300,000 residents who pay for prescription drugs. If prices didn’t drop in three years, the state could impose price controls.

Spending on prescription drugs has increased by 15 percent or more annually in recent years, and more than two dozen states urged the Supreme Court to uphold Maine’s effort to hold down the escalation.

Supporters of the Maine program contend that it is a response to years of inaction in Congress, which has repeatedly tried and failed to add prescription-drug coverage to the federal Medicare program for the elderly.

Labor and retiree groups support the Maine approach. Twenty-eight states supported Maine’s position. A dozen states said they were poised to adopt similar laws if the Supreme Court ruled in Maine’s favor.

Ray Simpson, 76, of Saco, Maine, said the Supreme Court ruling was a relief. He said he retired in December and learned the hard way the costs of paying out-of-pocket for prescriptions.

“It was unbelievable when I had to pay my first prescription,” Mr. Simpson said.

His prescription for Lipitor went from $20 for a 90-day supply to $98 for a 30-day supply. “You have to pay through the nose.”

The Bush administration, business groups and conservative legal organizations sided with the drug industry.

Some justices suggested in January, when the case was argued, that the dispute be resolved by a lower court or by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicaid. Medicaid, a joint program of the federal government and the states, funds health care for the poor and disabled.

Also yesterday, Ford Motor Co. won a Supreme Court victory in its effort to avoid paying a record $290 million for a sport utility vehicle rollover accident that killed three family members a decade ago.

The justices ordered a California court to consider whether the damage award was out of line.

The high court also told Kentucky judges to decide whether Ford owes $18 million to the family of a miner killed when a Ford pickup truck slipped into reverse and crushed him.

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