Bush Addresses Medicare Drug Benefit in Virginia Speech
President Bush in a speech at a Virginia senior center on Tuesday said he recognizes that the enrollment process for the new Medicare drug benefit can be "daunting" for some beneficiaries but added that the benefit overall is "a good deal" that will help Medicare beneficiaries save money, USA Today reports.
Bush said the program helps beneficiaries by providing "a variety of options from which to match their needs to that which is available" (Jackson, USA Today, 12/14). He said that the program is optional and that help is available to those who are confused by the number of choices (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12/14). "Ask your son or daughter, ask people in your church, ask people in AARP, ask people in your community center to help you look at what's available for you," Bush said.
White House spokesperson Trent Duffy said that Bush was not criticizing the program and instead was responding to specific concerns from a retiree at the Virginia senior center (Alonso-Zaldivar, Los Angeles Times, 12/14).
The Bush administration estimates that 500,000 beneficiaries have enrolled in the benefit since Nov. 15. Federal officials hope to enroll 28 million to 30 million beneficiaries (USA Today, 12/14).
In related news, delegates at the 2005 White House Conference on Aging on Tuesday "sharply criticized" the new Medicare prescription drug benefit and suggested that it be "completely revised and administered by the government, not private companies," the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports. The delegates also said the federal government should negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies to obtain discounts on prescription drugs, saying the resulting savings would eliminate the doughnut hole in coverage (Lade, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/14).
Delegates, some of whom wore "Fix Medicare Rx" buttons, also called for legalizing the reimportation of lower-cost U.S.-made prescription drugs from abroad and expanding subsidies for low-income beneficiaries enrolled in the Medicare drug benefit (Nohlgren, St. Petersburg Times, 12/14).
CMS Administrator Mark McClellan said at the conference that interest in the new drug benefit is "incredibly high." He also said beneficiaries who call Medicare's hotline are not experiencing delays in service, a comment that received "moans and groans and a few boos" from delegates, CQ HealthBeat reports.
CMS spokesperson Gary Karr also said callers to the hotline are not experiencing delays and that any problems that are reported generally can be traced back to non-Medicare sources, such as a health plan or a State Health Insurance Assistance Program (Carey, CQ HealthBeat, 12/13).
According to the Sun-Sentinel, Bush is the first president in the conference's history not to address delegates (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/14).
White House spokesperson Allen Abney said a number of Bush administration officials attended the conference, including McClellan, HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt and domestic policy adviser Claude Allen (Mussenden, Media General/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12/14).
White House spokesperson Jeanie Mamo said, "The purpose of the conference was to develop recommendations for research and action in the field of aging and present a report with their findings to the president." She added, "The president participated at an event in Springfield, Va., to educate seniors on Medicare prescription drugs and encourage them to sign up with the program" (St. Petersburg Times, 12/14).
The conference, held in Washington, D.C., features 1,200 delegates chosen by members of Congress, the Bush administration and each governor (CQ HealthBeat, 12/13). The conference is convened every 10 years to propose public policies on aging issues.
This year, delegates were asked to choose 50 resolutions from 73 proposals drafted in advance by a policy committee and make suggestions on how to implement the resolutions. The resolutions this year cover a number of topics, including adding dental care and long-term care coverage to Medicare.
Delegates must deliver to all state governors a list of recommendations within 100 days and present a final draft to Congress and Bush by June (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/14).
Beneficiaries who sign up for the Medicare drug benefit "could save thousands of dollars" by switching from brand name drugs to lower-cost medications, according to a report released Tuesday by Consumers Union, the Los Angeles Times reports. Consumers Union used the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan Finder tool to estimate drug costs for three hypothetical Medicare beneficiaries in Sacramento, Calif., Atlanta and Minneapolis. Each of the hypothetical seniors was taking a combination of prescription drugs, including cholesterol-lowering medications, blood pressure drugs and a painkiller.
According to the analysis, the seniors could switch from brand-name drugs to so-called best-buy drugs and save between $2,300 and $5,300 annually. According to Consumers Union, best-buy drugs are lower-cost medications -- usually generics -- identified by independent researchers at Oregon Health & Science University as equally effective as brand name drugs. CRBestBuyDrugs.org includes a list of best-buy drugs in 10 classes of medications, and Consumers Union is adding additional types of medications to the Web site.
According to the report, savings from the switches allowed the hypothetical seniors to keep their costs below the point at which they are exposed to the "doughnut hole" in Medicare's drug coverage. Under the doughnut hole, beneficiaries are responsible for full drug costs between $2,250 and $3,600 in total costs. After that point, Medicare covers 95% of drug costs (Los Angeles Times, 12/14).
The report is available online. Note: You must have Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the report.
In related news, a number of health insurers are reporting delays in the government's efforts to process applications for the new drug benefit, the New York Times reports.
Angela Feig, a spokesperson for a consortium of Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in the Midwest, said her group has received applications from 89,000 Medicare beneficiaries, but CMS has not yet conducted a verification process to confirm the applicants' eligibility to enroll. As a result, the consortium has not been able to mail out identification cards to beneficiaries, meaning some could face difficulty obtaining needed medicines from pharmacists when the drug benefit begins in January, Feig said.
Robert Meehan, vice president of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey said his organization is experiencing similar delays. John Rowe, chair of Aetna, reported similar problems and said Medicare is "working hard to fix the problem."
Karr said pharmacists will be able to use computer terminals to verify the enrollment of beneficiaries who do not have cards when the drug benefit begins, and Meehan said beneficiaries will be able to "present a letter at the pharmacy" showing they have enrolled.
According to the Times, the "source of the problem was not immediately clear." Insurers said they were aware of some technical problems with computers at CMS.
Karr said, "We have found errors in data submitted by some of the plans," and in some cases "we kick back the applications" so the errors can be fixed (Pear, New York Times, 12/14).
CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield said on Tuesday that information on its MediCareFirst Medicare prescription drug plan has not been available on the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan Finder tool for several days. The company urged beneficiaries to check medi-carefirst.com to obtain coverage information (Salganik, Baltimore Sun, 12/14).
Several broadcast programs reported recently on the Medicare prescription drug benefit:
- ABCNews' "World News Tonight": The segment includes comments from Bush; David Lipschutz, a lawyer with California Health Advocates; a pharmacist who is answering beneficiaries' questions about the benefit; and Medicare beneficiaries (Stark, "World News Tonight," ABCNews, 12/13).
- NPR's "All Things Considered": The segment includes comments from Bush; Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa); and Reps. JoAnn Emerson (R-Mo.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) (Rovner, "All Things Considered," NPR, 12/13). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Morning Edition": The segment includes comments from Jim Frederick, senior editor of Drug Store News; Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy; pharmacists who are answering beneficiaries' questions about the benefit; and Medicare beneficiaries (Hochberg, "Morning Edition," NPR, 12/14). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer": The segment includes comments from Tricia Neuman, a vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and director of its Medicare Policy Project (Warner, "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," PBS, 12/13). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.