HHS Commits $4.6 Million to Program To Enroll Low-Income Beneficiaries in Medicare Prescription Drug Discount Cards
HHS is committing $4.6 million to a new nationwide initiative designed to enroll low-income Medicare beneficiaries in the new prescription drug discount card program that begins June 1, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson announced Thursday, Chicago Tribune reports (Graham, Chicago Tribune, 5/28). HHS will work with the Access to Benefits Coalition, a new group of 68 organizations, on the enrollment effort, which aims to sign up 5.5 million low-income beneficiaries (Schuler, CQ Today, 5/27). The coalition includes the Center for Medicare Advocacy, AARP and the Alzheimer's Association (California Healthline, 5/24). The discount card program, created as part of the new Medicare law, 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 $12,372 for individuals or $16,608 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 Thompson, the discount cards provide average savings of about 10% to 17% for brand-name medications and 30% to 60% for generic treatments. Enrollment in the program began this month (California Healthline, 5/27).
The Bush administration has estimated that 7.2 million Medicare beneficiaries are eligible for the $600 subsidy but that only 4.7 million will take advantage of the program (California Healthline, 5/24). Recent media reports have indicated that, to date, enrollment in the program has been slow (California Healthline, 5/27). CMS Administrator Mark McClellan said that several hundred thousand low-income beneficiaries have enrolled in the drug card program (Pugh, Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/28). HHS plans to give funding to local not-for-profit organizations to conduct outreach and assistance in identifying and enrolling eligible beneficiaries (CQ Today, 5/27). The department has set aside $2.4 million for outreach efforts in the 30 largest metropolitan areas, where approximately 70% of low-income Medicare beneficiaries live. The Administration on Aging will use $2 million in funding to educate and enroll beneficiaries who live in rural areas, who have disabilities or who have limited English-language skills. In addition, the Indian Health Service will receive $200,000 to support education and enrollment of American Indian beneficiaries.
Thompson said, "We have an energetic coalition from the public and private sectors that wants to make sure seniors take advantage of the substantive savings the Medicare-approved cards provide" (HHS release, 5/27). Josefina Carbonell, assistant secretary for aging at HHS, said the new partnership with the Access to Benefits Coalition "significantly expands our ability to reach the people who will benefit the most from the drug card program" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/28). James Firman, president and CEO of the National Council on the Aging and chair of the coalition, said, "The Access to Benefits Coalition applauds [HHS] for announcing" the additional grants to help enroll low-income beneficiaries in the drug card program (HHS release, 5/27).
Responding to two reports released this week that said prescription drug price increases "have eroded savings" offered through the new drug card program, officials for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America on Thursday said that beneficiaries could save 21% at retail pharmacies and 26% at mail-order pharmacies for the 30 top-selling brand-name drugs, the Baltimore Sun reports (Zaneski, Baltimore Sun, 5/28). AARP's Public Policy Institute and Families USA on Tuesday released separate reports stating that drug price increases in recent years have outpaced the rate of inflation, and such increases would offset any savings that will be offered through the new Medicare discount card program. The AARP study examined manufacturers' wholesale acquisition costs for 197 drugs commonly prescribed to seniors and found that medications' average prices rose 27.6% from 2000 through 2003, nearly three times the rate of inflation during the same period. The Families USA study examined average wholesale prices for the 30 brand-name drugs most commonly prescribed to seniors, finding that between January 2003 and January 2004, prices increased 6.5%, or 4.3 times the consumer price index for all items besides energy (California Healthline, 5/26). Rick Smith, PhRMA's senior vice president for policy, said, "It saddens me if people don't enroll ... because they're getting bad information that these programs are not worthwhile." Smith said that the studies ignore the fact that medications can reduce spending on hospital and physician visits, noting that health insurance premiums are rising even faster than drug payments. "It's time for a broader discussion of health care issues," he added. But Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack said, "Drug price increases since [President] Bush took office have risen beyond discounts that the administration said were possible with the cards" (Baltimore Sun, 5/28).
USA Today on Friday examined the problems some beneficiaries are facing when signing up for the prescription drug discount card, including difficulty finding information on the program Web site, fluctuating drug prices and a large number of choices (Block/Appleby, USA Today, 5/28). A separate USA Today story suggested that beneficiaries compare prices, negotiate with pharmacies and look at other options such as Internet pharmacies (Block, USA Today, 5/28). PBS' "Nightly Business Report" on Thursday reported on efforts to enroll beneficiaries in the Medicare drug discount card program. The segment includes comments from geriatric physician Dr. Rebecca Elon, Thompson and Medicare beneficiaries (Woods, "Nightly Business Report," PBS, 5/27). The complete transcript is available online.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.