PORTLAND (AP) – A program offered by a consortium of seven prescription drug manufacturers that provides deep discounts to income-eligible Medicare enrollees has been virtually ignored in Maine.

About 54,000 Mainers are eligible for Together Rx, but only 1,410 have signed up since it was introduced last summer.

Together Rx executive director Bob Perkins credits the numbers in part to the popularity of Healthy Maine Prescriptions. About 112,000 residents saved money through that program before a federal appeals court deemed it an unlawful expansion of Medicaid last December.

Together Rx, whose members include GlaxoSmithKline and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., is trying to spread the word in Maine about its drug discount card. It’s one of a growing crop of discount programs being rolled out by drug makers who are under public pressure to reduce prices.

Perkins met with House Speaker Patrick Colwell, D-Gardiner, more than a month ago, to discuss ways to promote Together Rx, which provides savings of 20 to 40 percent.

“This is really an effort by those seven manufacturers to lend a helping hand to people who really need help,” Perkins said.

The pharmaceutical industry maintains that the discount cards are stop-gap measures to assist senior citizens until Congress passes a prescription drug benefit in Medicare.

Consumer groups such as AARP agree that the program works. “But it’s not a substitute for a prescription drug benefit in Medicare,” said Steve Jennings, advocacy director of AARP Maine.

Critics say the cards represent a thinly-veiled attempt by drug makers to improve their image and to build brand loyalty.

“I would love to be able to have these folks cut their prices down,” said John Carr, president of the Maine Council of Senior Citizens. “But why not cut the prices down for everybody?”

Colwell, a vocal critic of the pharmaceutical industry and supporter of state efforts to control drug costs, says that any tool to help Mainers buy drugs is welcome and that he will likely endorse the card publicly.

But Colwell says discount cards would never replace legislative solutions for lowering drug costs such as Healthy Maine Prescriptions, which the state has retooled in hopes of having it reinstated.

Senate President Beverly Daggett, D-Augusta, applauded the industry for making the discount program available, but said, “If they were really serious about it they would be advertising it in a way to bring people into it.”

Daggett, Colwell and other legislative leaders appeared at a news conference Monday in which they urged Congress to pass legislation modeled after Maine’s so-called Rx law.

A legislative resolution also calling for congressional action on the America Rx Act was tabled Monday.

The America Rx Act would direct the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate lower prices for 65 million Americans who lack adequate prescription drug coverage. It is sponsored by Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, who also attended the Augusta news conference.

The Maine Rx law, which calls for similar negotiations on behalf of Mainers without adequate coverage, faces a U.S. Supreme Court challenge.

Nationwide, about 11 million Medicare enrollees are eligible for the Together Rx program. To qualify, seniors cannot have any other drug coverage and can make no more than $28,000. The income cap for couples is $38,000.

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