Dozens of pharmacists and pharmacy students packed into a legislative hearing Wednesday to voice concerns over a cost-saving proposal to change the prescription drug benefit plan for thousands of state and education employees in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma State and Education Employees Group Insurance Board approved a change to its prescription drug plan. The change provides cost savings for members who use in-network pharmacies and a mail-order service for certain maintenance medications, which are drugs taken each day, such as for diabetes or high blood pressure. The board projects the change will save the system and its members an estimated $15 million annually, said OSEEGIB Administrator Frank Wilson.

"This is a cost-savings strategy that is commonly used by public and private-sector large health plans," Wilson said.

Local pharmacists are concerned about the effect on their businesses, many of which are in communities where the school is the area's largest employer and the largest customer base of the pharmacy.

"What we're trying to do is balance the ability to hold down health care premiums for state employees while still protecting our local pharmacies and keep them in business so they're not undercut by an out-of-state mail order house," said Rep. Doug Cox, the chairman of the Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Public Health and Social Services that conducted Wednesday's hearing.

"Our local pharmacies are great contributors to our schools, our local fundraising events. And when you look at the number of people who work there, you're talking about a significant impact if they should go out of business."

Oklahoma has an estimated 480 independent community retail pharmacies, said Phil Woodward, director of the Oklahoma Pharmacists Association. Woodward said his members and the not-for-profit Pharmacy Providers of Oklahoma are working to develop an alternative plan that would maintain cost savings for the state health plan and allow participants to have access to the pharmacy of their choice.

"The pharmacies are the soul and blood of communities in Oklahoma counties," he said.

Cox, an emergency room physician from Grove, said he's optimistic the two sides will continue to negotiate and can reach an agreement without interference by lawmakers.

"The last thing I think anyone wants is for the Legislature to try and manage this thing. We don't have the health care expertise, the insurance expertise, the pharmaceutical expertise that we would need," said Cox, R-Grove. "On the other hand, the Legislature is interested in protecting jobs in Oklahoma, investments in Oklahoma, our pharmacy schools and making sure those pharmacy students ... have a job to go to in the state of Oklahoma, so if we have to get involved, we will."