HHS To Mail Medicare Prescription Drug Discount Cards to Low-Income Beneficiaries
As expected, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson on Wednesday announced that federal officials will mail Medicare prescription drug discount cards to about 1.8 million low-income beneficiaries who already receive some government assistance with Medicare expenses, the New York Times reports (Pear, New York Times, 9/23). According to the AP/Omaha World-Herald, about seven million low-income Medicare beneficiaries are eligible to enroll in the prescription drug discount card program and receive the accompanying $600 annual subsidy (AP/Omaha World-Herald, 9/23). However, so far only 1.3 million low-income beneficiaries have signed up for the program. Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation that would require automatic enrollment of more low-income beneficiaries, but the bills have not yet advanced. The new plan, which will apply to beneficiaries who already receive some government assistance with Medicare expenses, is designed to boost enrollment in the program while still allowing beneficiaries to have a choice of cards (California Healthline, 9/22).
Beneficiaries who receive the cards will be assigned at random to one of the 17 companies -- including Aetna, Medco and UnitedHealth Group -- that have agreed to issue Medicare prescription drug discount cards to low-income beneficiaries (New York Times, 9/23). Beneficiaries can ask to sign up for a different card if their local pharmacy offers a better discount on their prescription drugs than the card that they receive by mail, according to the AP/World-Herald (AP/Omaha World-Herald, 9/23). To receive the $600 annual subsidy, beneficiaries must call a toll-free telephone number and confirm their eligibility by answering questions about existing prescription drug coverage and annual income levels. The new cards will arrive in the mail in the next several weeks, and they can be used starting Nov. 1, according to the Times.
Thompson said, "Seniors with limited means who are struggling to pay for their medicines can save right away." He added, "We are now making it automatic, so those who qualify for the [subsidy] get it as soon as possible." Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said the plan was a "step in the right direction."
Medicare officials on Wednesday also "provided additional information" about the 17% increase in Medicare Part B premiums for 2005, according to the Times (New York Times, 9/23). HHS officials announced earlier this month that monthly Part B premiums will increase by $11.60 to $78.20 in 2005. The increase is the single largest dollar increase in Medicare's history. Premiums rose 13.5% this year and 8.7% last year (California Healthline, 9/15).
According to the Times, Medicare actuaries informed Congress this week that only 14 cents of the increase is attributable to new benefits, including an initial physical examination for new beneficiaries and screening tests for diabetes and high cholesterol. The actuaries said that $1.60 of the increase in premiums resulted from higher payments to HMOs and other private health plans, and most of the remainder resulted from increased Medicare reimbursement rates to doctors and higher medical costs (New York Times, 9/23).