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Bill would legalize medical coupons

State lawmakers have prided themselves on being first in the nation, especially when it comes to health care, but a proposal making its way through the Legislature would make Massachusetts the final state to allow pharmaceutical drug coupons.

Such coupons appear in magazine ads and online, but they are worthless in Massachusetts ­because of a 1988 state law that forbids any rebate for health care purchasing, with penalties of up to a $10,000 fine or even prison time.

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That could change soon. Both the House and Senate have approved fiscal 2013 budget amendments that would allow coupon redemption for the copayment costs of prescription drugs.

During his reelection campaign in October 2010, Governor Deval Patrick said he supported a House plan to allow prescription drug coupons to be used.

Though both amendments would make the coupons redeemable at pharmacies, there are differences that will need to be worked out by a six-member conference committee.

Both versions ban coupons for brand-name drugs when a generic version is available, but the Senate plan requires the discounts to remain in perpetuity, while the House version allows the discounts to expire.

According to the Senate version, pharmaceutical companies that change the pricing during the life of a prescription would be subject to a $1,000 fine.

“Every other state allows their citizens to use assistance in paying for their high-cost drugs,” state Senator Michael Rodrigues, Democrat of Westport, said during floor debate on Friday. “Why are we denying our citizens . . . the ability to use these coupons?”

Rodrigues said pharmacists are directing his constituents to Rhode Island to use their coupons.

Although the House and Senate have been working on dueling bills to lower health care costs, both chambers chose to add the coupon legalization to the budget, a bill that is virtually guaranteed to pass, perhaps as soon as late June.

The Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, Richard T. Moore, Democrat of Uxbridge, said the Senate plan keeps the discount throughout the life of the prescription, unlike the House’s plan.

Moore said during debate that he was mindful of the potential for drug companies to use a “bait-and-switch process” in which they attract consumers with coupons and discounts and when the ­reduced price period ends “you get whacked with the full price” of often very expensive medications.

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