WASHINGTON -- Drugstore chains that once sued to block a Medicare discount drug card for seniors said Thursday they will seek the Bush administration's endorsement for a discount card they want to offer in June.
The drug chains will work with Express Scripts Inc., a large manager of prescription drug plans. The alliance is the first to announce it wants to offer a discount card with its government seal of approval, which will be available until the new Medicare prescription drug benefit begins in 2006.
"The only way to offer the card was to partner with a leading organization with experience in this area," said Craig Fuller, president of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.
The Medicare legislation that President Bush signed last month calls for a discount card as a bridge to the drug benefit. The White House has said that discounts would range as high as 25 percent, while critics have said the savings would be minimal.
Barrett Toan, the chief executive of St. Louis-based Express Scripts, said the discounts would be "meaningful." Details of the program have yet to be worked out, he said, including how much it would cost to enroll. Card sponsors can charge up to $30 a year.
The new alliance amounts to a reconciliation between groups that have quarreled over the drug card.
The drug chains sued the administration in 2001, arguing it had no authority to issue the card. They worried that pharmacies would end up subsidizing the lower prices, while pharmacy benefit managers like Express Scripts negotiated private agreements with drug companies.
Both sectors lobbied aggressively during last year's deliberations over the bill. Fuller's group called for a level playing field that prevented drug plan managers from steering business to their own mail order services at the expense of retail pharmacies.
The drug chains also wanted to allow consumers to fill 90-day prescriptions at pharmacies.
Fuller said the drug card program outlined in the new law differs significantly from what Bush proposed in 2001.
Assuming the card wins the Medicare endorsement, it will allow seniors the choice of mail order service or a retail pharmacy, as well as 90-day supplies from either source, Toan said.
Toan said the drug card would help his company stake a claim to managing the drug benefit under Medicare beginning in 2006.