Medicare Prescription Drug Discount Card Program Telephone Hotline Overwhelmed
The 1-800-MEDICARE hotline, dedicated to helping Medicare beneficiaries determine which prescription drug discount card best fits their needs, has been overwhelmed in recent weeks by millions of people calling to speak to benefit counselors, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. The phone line received 1.6 million calls during the first week in May, when the discount drug cards became available, and the 1,000 counselors hired by the government to advise people were unable to handle the high volume, according to the Inquirer. As a result, thousands of callers were disconnected or had to wait 20 minutes or longer to speak to a representative, according to CMS Administrator Mark McClellan. The government has recommended that beneficiaries visit the program's Web site for information about the drug cards, but because many seniors do not use the Internet, they are relying on the phone line for help, the Inquirer reports. Medicare has said it will soon add 400 additional benefit counselors to handle the high volume of calls, and on Monday McClellan announced plans to add 100 more (Pugh, Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/18). McClellan also recommended that people seeking to speak with a benefits counselor call later in the week or during evening hours, when call volumes are lowest (Heldt Powell, Boston Herald, 5/18).
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. Discount 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 HHS Secretary Tommy 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, and the cards take effect in June (California Healthline, 5/14).
A number of newspapers on Tuesday published articles examining the new discount drug card program. Summaries appear below.
- "Drug Dilemma: Who's Paying What?" Boston Herald: The Herald examined the "bewildering choice of prescription discount cards" facing seniors and the difficulty many beneficiaries are having in choosing the best card (Heldt Powell, Boston Herald, 5/18).
- "New Benefits Already Targeted for Change," Boston Herald: The Herald looked at the growing push by Democrats and not-for-profit groups like the Massachusetts Senior Action Council to amend the Medicare law (Heldt Powell, Boston Herald, 5/18).
- "New Medicare Cards Might Save You Money on Prescriptions -- Or Not," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: The Post-Gazette examined the confusion over the discount card program and analyzes the potential for savings for several sample beneficiaries (Snowbeck, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5/18).
- "Pick a Card!" Washington Post: Post writer Lisa Barrett Mann chronicles the difficulties she faced when trying to select a drug discount card for her mother, including being unable to speak with a benefits counselor through the 1-800-MEDICARE hotline; a lack of discounts for several medications; discrepancies between pricing information listed on the Web site and what customer service representatives for the cards say; and inaccurate information about which drugs are discounted on the Medicare Web site (Barrett Mann, Washington Post, 5/18).
- NPR's "All Things Considered" on Tuesday will report on the Medicare prescription drug discount cards and the need for help among beneficiaries and the organizations that advise them on how to select a card ("All Things Considered," NPR, 5/18). The complete segment will be available online in RealPlayer at 7:30 p.m. ET.