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Benefit cards won’t cut Food Stamps

DEMOPOLIS – On Friday, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture announced it will not penalize food stamp recipients on Medicare who take advantage of the federal government’s prescription drug discount card.

The cards are intended to be temporary, in effect only until prescription drug insurance under Medicare begins in 2006. They are designed to allow people without prescription drug insurance to benefit from lower prices available through group purchasing.

At issue was whether or not the drug cards – and a $600 benefit for the nation’s poorest people – would be counted as income under the Agriculture Department’s Food Stamp Program, a move U.S. Rep. Artur Davis had opposed last week.

“For years, members of Congress’ have talked about seniors having to choose between prescription drugs and food. Who knew the Bush Administration would try to implement that as policy,” Davis said in a release.

He and others in Congress had been pressuring the Bush Administration and Agriculture to revise regulations that would count the prescription benefits as income.

Language in the authorizing legislature prohibits other federal agencies from reducing federal benefits because of the drug benefit, Mark McClellan told the Associated Press.

McClellan runs the Medicare program for the government.

On Friday, USDA, which runs the food stamp program, said the Medicare position was correct. “We will immediately be clarifying policy guidance to ensure that food stamp applicants or recipients who use the new Medicare discount card will experience no impact on their eligibility or benefits,” said Eric Bost, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

The controversy seems to have subsided, but is the drug card something people without prescription benefits can sink their teeth into?

One Demopolis pharmacist believes it’s a good program, but admits – aside from the $600 benefit for the lowest income families – it’s a program being funded by the nation’s drug stores.

“The cards are helping some people,” said Ronnie O’Neal, owner of CVS Pharmacy in Demopolis.

“It’s a little like Chinese arithmetic to figure out, though

O’Neal said only those on Medicare and lacking “real insurance coverage” qualify for a discount card, which are offered by a wide variety of private companies, including CVS Pharmacies.

“It’s really helping some poor people whose income falls in that $12,000 – $16,000 category. Above that level, it’s just a discount,” he said.

O’Neal said most discount cards offer a 15 percent – 40 percent savings on medication, but cautions that many charge an annual fee.

“There are 39 different that qualify for this thing,” he said.

His advice: “Check with their pharmacists to see what cards the pharmacy takes.”

“Once they get a card, they’re stuck for the balance of the year,” O’Neal said.

According to the federal government, about 3 million people have signed up for discount cards, but enrollments for the $600 benefit have been lagging.