Leavitt Calls for Delay on Medicare Penalty Waiver
HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said on Thursday that Congress should wait to act on legislation that would waive the late-enrollment penalty for Medicare beneficiaries who missed the May 15 sign-up deadline for the drug benefit, CongressDaily reports (CongressDaily, 5/18).
Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and a bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday introduced a bill (S 2810) that would eliminate the penalty -- equal to a 1% increase in premiums for each month of delayed enrollment -- for beneficiaries who sign up for a drug plan during the next open enrollment period, which begins in November.
The legislation also would provide $18 million for efforts to help more beneficiaries enroll.
House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health Chair Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) introduced a companion bill (HR 5399) in the House on Tuesday (California Healthline, 5/17).
Speaking at an event Thursday, Leavitt said Congress should wait to act on the legislation until officials can determine how many seniors enrolled in the new benefit by the deadline and how many failed to do so. "My suggestion is to wait until we get final data and analyze it," he said (CongressDaily, 5/18).
House Ways and Means Committee Chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) on Wednesday announced plans to hold at least one hearing to examine the drug benefit enrollment process to assure that "additional future decisions in the month of May and into June" are based on fact.
A spokesperson for House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said lawmakers should wait to act on Johnson's bill until after the hearing.
However, Johnson said, "There's a lot of reasons, I think, to move ahead with this bill promptly. I want to have the seniors have [the] peace of mind of knowing that they can enroll in the fall without penalty." Johnson added that waiving the late-enrollment penalty is necessary because of "well-organized attempts to suppress enrollment" by opponents of the program (Reichard, CQ HealthBeat, 5/18).
This week's "panic in Congress to extend Monday's deadline for penalty-free enrollment is further evidence that the program has been far from the political home run the GOP once hoped," a Wall Street Journal editorial states. According to the Journal, Republican leaders once "fantasized aloud that the benefit offered the prospect of a 'permanent Republican majority.'"
However, since then, it has become clear that, "[a]t best, the drug benefit will be a political wash this first national election following its implementation," and Democrats "are making a pledge to 'fix' the benefit -- meaning expand it -- their top campaign plank," the editorial states. According to the Journal, the "political future as far as the eye can see promises nasty battles over drug price controls and between Democrats trying to expand the program and Republicans trying to hold the line" (Wall Street Journal, 5/19).