McClellan Says Drug Benefit Implementation Improving
CMS is working to address problems in the implementation of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit and is looking for ways to make the program easier for beneficiaries to understand, CMS Administrator Mark McClellan said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Wednesday, USA Today reports (Wolf, USA Today, 2/9).
According to Dow Jones, McClellan would not commit to a date by which the problems would be fixed but said CMS is on track to address most of the major problems by March or April (Dow Jones, 2/8). He also outlined several steps CMS has taken or will take to address the problems, including:
- Requiring insurers offering Medicare drug plans to provide beneficiaries with a 90-day supply of any medications they were taking before the drug benefit took effect Jan. 1;
- Hiring a company to ensure that pharmacists, states and drug plans all have the same information on beneficiaries;
- Conducting daily transfers of information between Medicare and drug plans; and
- Reducing wait times on Medicare phone lines and increase the number of phone line representatives from 3,000 to 7,800 individuals (Kumar, St. Petersburg Times, 2/9).
McClellan also said he does not plan to limit the number of drug plans offered under the benefit, adding that competition between plans has helped lower costs. He added, "We believe that we can make competition work even better by simplifying the presentation." McClellan said the simplified presentation would help beneficiaries compare plans (USA Today, 2/9).
In addition, he said the Bush administration will consider prohibiting beneficiaries from enrolling or switching plans at the end of the month because those who do are experiencing problems obtaining medications after the first day of the following month, when their coverage is supposed to begin (Norman, Des Moines Register, 2/9).
"Hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries switched plans in the last half of December, contributing to our early January problems," he said, adding that CMS is encouraging beneficiaries to enroll or switch plans by the middle of the month rather than at the end of the month (Reichard, CQ HealthBeat, 2/8).
Baucus said the Bush administration has implemented the Medicare drug benefit "poorly" and discouraged beneficiaries from enrolling by "paralyzing" them with choices (Schuler/Reichard, CQ Today, 2/8). He also said he will introduce legislation that would create uniform standards for drug plans, allowing easier comparison of choices.
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said the drug benefit "is botched," adding, "I have never seen people so angry" (Dow Jones, 2/8).
However, Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said, "It is very easy to sit up here and say, 'Well I would have done a better job.' We are not here to assign blame or point fingers." He added, "[I]t's time to move on. Now is not time to make excuses. We need to have productive conversations and decisive actions to current the recent shortcomings" (St. Petersburg Times, 2/9).
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said, "[W]e're all amazed at how many companies want to participate" in the drug benefit, adding, "I happen to think that's a pretty good thing."
In related news, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and six additional Senate Democrats are cosponsoring a bill that would require drug plans to maintain coverage of drugs that were listed on their formularies when beneficiaries signed up for the plan. The legislation would permit plans to switch coverage from a brand-name drug to a generic drug if it becomes available.
Snowe said, "It is unreasonable to ask seniors to accept unexpected changes to their plans after they have spent so much time and effort choosing one that suits their needs (CQ HealthBeat, 2/8).