Democrats Recommend More Automatic Enrollment in Medicare Prescription Drug Discount Card Program
With only three million beneficiaries enrolled in the Medicare prescription drug discount card program so far, some Senate Democrats and senior advocates on Tuesday at a Senate Finance Committee hearing called upon CMS to expand efforts to automatically enroll participants, Long Island Newsday reports. Of total participants, 2.4 million beneficiaries were automatically enrolled because they belonged to a Medicare HMO. In addition, seven states with senior drug assistance programs have been automatically enrolling beneficiaries in the Medicare discount card program (Barfield Berry, Long Island Newsday, 6/9). That program, which was created as part of the new Medicare law and debuted last week, is available to Medicare beneficiaries who do not have prescription drug coverage through Medicaid. Beneficiaries have access to a number of discount cards sponsored by private companies and endorsed by Medicare. Card sponsors can charge an annual enrollment fee of as much as $30 and likely will offer savings on at least one medication in each of 209 classes of treatments commonly used by Medicare beneficiaries. Medicare beneficiaries with annual incomes of less than $12,569 for individuals or $16,862 for couples will qualify for a $600 annual subsidy for their prescription drug costs and will not have to pay enrollment fees. Beneficiaries can use the Medicare Web site or call 1-800-MEDICARE to make card-to-card comparisons of prescription drug discounts. According to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, the discount cards provide average savings of about 10% to 17% for brand-name medications and 30% to 60% for generic treatments (California Healthline, 6/4).
Democrats and senior advocates said the government should expand automatic enrollment beyond the seven states. Automatic enrollment is "sort of a no-brainer," Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said. Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, added that millions of low-income seniors would be signed up for the program if automatic enrollment were expanded to all states, noting, "[a]t the end of the day, that's all that matters." CMS Administrator Mark McClellan said the government is "definitely looking into" the possibility of expanding automatic enrollment. However, he said obstacles to such expansion include that states first must receive approval from their legislatures to act on behalf of beneficiaries and that the federal government must ensure states are willing and able to automatically enroll beneficiaries (Long Island Newsday, 6/9).
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) on Tuesday introduced a bill that would require the Bush administration to reduce to three the number of cards available in each region of the country. The bill also would require card sponsors to maintain drug discounts at least as large as they were when a beneficiary signed up for the program and prohibit sponsors from ending discounts for medicines. Conrad said, "People are confused. They're confused because there are so many cards" (Sherman, AP/Newark Star-Ledger, 6/9). He added, "All of us who were supporters of this bill have an obligation to make it better." Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said, "The main problem is that there are simply too many drug card options. I believe in meaningful choices -- not choice for the sake of ideology" (Schuler, CQ Today, 6/8).
Some senators at the hearing continued to defend the drug card program, following allegations by many Democrats that the program is a "failure" and an "embarrassment," CongressDaily reports. McClellan said the cards are providing "significant savings" to Medicare beneficiaries (Heil, CongressDaily, 6/8). He noted that competition has contributed to lower prices since the program began and that the cards offer savings of 11% to 18% off average retail prices for brand-name drugs and 30% to 60% for generic drugs. McClellan said, "It doesn't have to be confusing. People can focus in on one or two of the best cards" (CQ Today, 6/8). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said, "There will be struggles along the way -- and because of the magnitude of this program, there will be confusion." Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said, "The drug discount card program has been the target of a deliberate campaign to discredit it and confuse seniors [about how it works]. This effort is driven and coordinated by those who opposed [the new Medicare law] not because of policy but because of politics." Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who backed the Medicare legislation, said she is concerned about what might happen with the prescription drug benefit scheduled to begin in 2006 "if we can't get this drug card off the ground efficiently and effectively" (CongressDaily, 6/8).
NPR's "Morning Edition" on Wednesday reported on the "buyers' remorse" some lawmakers may be experiencing over the Medicare prescription drug discount cards they approved, while others appeared "as confused as their constituents" about the program. The segment includes comments from Conrad, Grassley, McClellan, Snowe, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) (Rovner, "Morning Edition," NPR, 6/9). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.