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Good move protecting seniors Legislature correct to make sure New Yorkers get needed medications

New York State lawmakers voted this week to reassure senior citizens after the federal foul-up in providing an understandable way to sign up for Medicare's new prescription drug program. Given the federal track record, this law is smart.

The law ensures that up to 600,000 low-income elderly and disabled New Yorkers can continue getting their medications despite the confusion in Medicare. The state already has been covering insurance gaps, but this extends the practice past a March deadline and includes some Medicaid recipients.

The real fix must come at the federal level, which is providing the drug coverage benefit but failed to make it simple enough. The feds eventually were shamed into promising to pay back states that had stepped in to help folks who suddenly couldn't get their medications or had to pay hundreds of dollars for them; in New York, that price tag has hit $68 million.

Gov. George E. Pataki vetoed the Legislature's bill to make that coverage a state guarantee, arguing that New York already had stepped in and it shouldn't enshrine that emergency intervention as another state entitlement. Both houses of the Legislature, far more attuned to public sentiment in an election year, unanimously overrode his veto.

Pataki is sending mixed messages on health care. Buried in his budget is another troubling move, a cost-cutting shift of 91,000 seniors from the simple state EPIC drug plan into the confusing array of new Medicare plans. But the governor also boosted health care by adding an $18 million amendment to his budget this week to fund a state-of-the-art Roswell Park Cancer Institute pharmacology research facility.

After the override, though, seniors at least have some added confidence that their prescriptions will be covered. This state guarantee will have to be watched to make sure it doesn't turn into a huge financial drain, but the bottom line is that government shouldn't be adding to the pain of those whose lives already have enough of that.

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