Hearing Considers Medicare Enrollment Penalty
House Ways and Means Committee Chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) at a committee hearing on Wednesday "remained close-lipped" about whether he will support legislation that would eliminate a financial penalty for Medicare beneficiaries who missed the May 15 deadline to sign up for the prescription drug benefit, CongressDaily reports. Several lawmakers have introduced bills that would waive the late-enrollment penalty. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), chair of the Ways and Means Committee Subcommittee on Health, has gained some bipartisan support for her bill (HR 5399).
However, Thomas said, "Those proposals were written before we really knew what the landscape was," adding that enrollment data and possibly other hearings would determine "whether or not, based on the facts, we should act."
CMS Administrator Mark McClellan said that 11.6 million of the 16 million beneficiaries who were without prescription drug coverage before the drug benefit now have coverage. About one million of the unenrolled beneficiaries would have to pay the financial penalty to enroll in November, he said. McClellan noted that about 3.3 million of the unenrolled beneficiaries qualify for the program's low-income subsidy; Medicare has waived the penalty for those individuals (Heil, CongressDaily, 6/14).
Thomas said, "I do want to say ... that this [enrollment] success has come in spite of some pretty bitter partisan politics." He added, "America's seniors have been able to see through the enormous negativity from many individuals in trying to convince anyone who would listen that this benefit is a farce. It was that negativity that the media reported on for most of the six-month enrollment period."
However, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) said, "To suggest in any way that we discouraged people to sign up I think counters the facts."
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said the enrollment figures show that low-income people who are the most in need of assistance are the most likely to have missed the deadline.
The National Council on Aging said Congress should eliminate the asset test that determines whether beneficiaries qualify for the low-income subsidy, noting that more than half of applications for the subsidy have been denied. NCOA also recommended that lawmakers call for more specialty call centers, increased public and private sector funding for enrollment efforts and more one-on-one enrollment counseling (Reichard, CQ HealthBeat, 6/14).
In related news, CMS on Wednesday announced that Hurricane Katrina evacuees who missed the May 15 deadline will not have to pay the late-enrollment penalty, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports (Walsh, New Orleans Times-Picayune, 6/15). The government previously said Hurricane Katrina evacuees would be allowed to enroll without a late-enrollment penalty for 63 days after the May 15 sign-up deadline but would have to pay a 2% penalty beginning the 64th day (California Healthline, 5/17).
McClellan said CMS will launch a demonstration project that will eliminate the penalty for beneficiaries in 31 Louisiana parishes affected by Katrina. The information on which areas are eligible for the extension is posted on the Medicare Web site.
However, Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) said the penalty waiver should be extended to beneficiaries of Hurricane Rita as well. "It doesn't make sense to pick one storm over another," Jindal said, adding, "It just perpetuates the sense that Rita is the forgotten storm up here" (New Orleans Times-Picayune, 6/15).