JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - More than 63,000 low-income Missouri seniors on Saturday will be cut off from state aid that helps pay for prescription medications after lawmakers this year slashed the program in response to sluggish state revenues.
Roughly a quarter of those who had been receiving aid will be cut off, and the state's aging advocates have been bombarded with phone calls from worried seniors wondering how they'll pay for medications.
Under the program, the state pays for half of low-income seniors' prescription copays. The move will impact seniors who make between 85 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty level - too much to qualify for Medicaid health benefits. For one person, that's between about $10,200 and $22,300 a year.
Advocates say cuts will mean tough choices for senior Missourians on fixed incomes.
"You make decisions on whether you can afford to take your medication or cut your pills in half or do without something else," Missouri AARP Director Craig Eichelman said.
Cuts come amid strained state finances due in part to lower-than-expected revenue, which prompted Republican Gov. Eric Greitens to cut roughly $146 million to balance the budget for the fiscal year that ended Friday. That's on top of about $200 million cut by former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon before he left office.
Saturday is the start of the new fiscal year.
Lawmakers passed a bill, still pending on Greitens' desk, that would renew the Missouri Rx program, which was set to expire in August. But legislators dropped about 25 percent of the people who had been receiving state assistance and passed a budget that covers costs only for seniors who qualify for Medicaid.
Versailles Republican Rep. David Wood, who proposed the cuts, said the goal was to maintain services for the most vulnerable seniors.
"I didn't want to cut the program," Wood said. "But when you have a $400 million shortfall you have to make your priorities and those people on Medicaid, they are the state's responsibility."
Wood said lawmakers could restore the services if revenues grow, but he said finances still appear strained and expressed skepticism about boosting funding next fiscal year.
In response to the cut, Wood and senior advocates have been slammed with calls from seniors upset and confused about the change.
Mid-America Regional Council's Aging and Adult Services Director James Stowe said the nonprofit has been "inundated" with about 50 to 100 calls a day from people worried about losing state aid. The organization serves seniors in the Kansas City area and counties including Jackson County, which will be hit hardest. More than 6,200 Jackson County seniors face losing aid, according to the Missouri Department of Social Services.
Stowe said many were caught off guard by how quickly services were cut and now are scrambling to find other ways to pay for medications.
Some financial help is available from pharmaceutical companies or nonprofits such as Rx Outreach. But Stowe said options are limited because the program was meant for low-income seniors who need help but don't typically qualify for other state aid.
Stowe and others said for those who now can't afford prescriptions and don't find alternatives, the cuts could have long-term health implications and might ultimately lead to more medical costs for the state.
"People are going to end up in the emergency room or end up in nursing homes because they can't get proper medication, unfortunately," said Mary Schaefer, executive director of the Mid-East Area Agency on Aging, which serves the St. Louis region. "This program helps people who are on the edge stay at home (and) stay healthy."