Nearly Three Million Beneficiaries Enrolled in Medicare Prescription Drug Discount Card Program, Thompson Says
Nearly three million Medicare beneficiaries have enrolled in the new prescription drug discount card program, with the vast majority being automatically enrolled, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson announced on Tuesday, the Long Island Newsday reports (Morris, Long Island Newsday, 6/1). The discount card program, which was created as part of the new Medicare law and debuted Tuesday, 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 (California Healthline, 6/1).
At a news conference to mark the official launch of the drug cards, Thompson said that the program is "off to a good start," with 2.87 million Medicare beneficiaries already enrolled. However, he acknowledged that 2.3 million of those beneficiaries were automatically enrolled as a result of being a member of a Medicare managed care plan. About 500,000 beneficiaries signed up for a discount card on their own (Jackson/Schwab, Newark Star-Ledger, 6/2). According to the Christian Science Monitor, AARP sent out 26,000 enrollment kits for the new drug card program and had signed up 400 people as of Friday (Marks, Christian Science Monitor, 6/2). The Bush administration earlier had predicted that 7.3 million Medicare beneficiaries would sign up for the cards, but on Tuesday, Thompson "declined to reiterate that claim," according to the Denver Rocky Mountain News. He said, "We think [the program is] successful right now. We've got 2.8 million Americans signed up who didn't have this opportunity yesterday" (Brand, Denver Rocky Mountain News, 6/2). CMS Administrator Mark McClellan predicted that "hundreds of thousands" of new applications will be approved in the coming weeks. He also said that many beneficiaries who have to pay the $30 enrollment fee will recoup their money within the first two months because of the discounts available (MacDonald, Hartford Courant, 6/2). The Christian Science Monitor reports that CMS also is working with WebMD, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the National Council on Aging to launch a Web portal designed to help seniors choose the best card for their needs (Christian Science Monitor, 6/2).
Thompson also said that he is "somewhat concerned" that more low-income beneficiaries have not signed up for the program. He speculated that that some beneficiaries have been "scared away" from the program by criticism from opponents, who say the enrollment process is too confusing and the savings minimal. Thompson said that in addition to the $600 subsidy, a number of pharmaceutical companies have promised deeper discounts to low-income beneficiaries (Lueck, Wall Street Journal, 6/2). According to Bloomberg/Austin-American Statesman, more than five million low-income beneficiaries would be eligible to receive free prescription drugs from Merck, Johnson & Johnson and Novartis through the drug card program. In addition, Eli Lilly, Abbott Laboratories, AstraZeneca PLC and Wyeth will offer larger discounts to low-income beneficiaries who sign up for certain drug cards (Hallam/Snider, Bloomberg/Austin-American Statesman, 6/2). Thompson said, "There's just no sense in [beneficiaries] leaving that money on the table" (Wall Street Journal, 6/2). He added, "We are going to be putting all-court pressure on them to sign up," but said that the federal government will not expand the number of beneficiaries automatically enrolled in the program (Sherman, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 6/1). HHS has committed spending $4.6 million to enroll 5.5 million low-income Medicare beneficiaries in the program (California Healthline, 5/28). McClellan said the agency would consider expanding automatic enrollment if recruitment falls short of the government's goal.
Michael Polzin, a spokesperson for Walgreens, said that beneficiaries are not "running out" to sign up for or to use the cards at Walgreens pharmacies (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 6/1). However, he added that Walgreens so far has "tens of thousands of seniors enrolled" in its card and that in recent days, the rate of enrollment has tripled as beneficiaries "become more aware." He added that "there is momentum building" (Dorschner, Miami Herald, 6/2). Prime Therapeutics CEO Tim Dickman said, "It's been a very slow uptake. There's a lot of market confusion" (Welch/Appleby, USA Today, 6/2). Experts say that there are many reasons for the slow start to the program, including "widespread cynicism, ... questionable savings," difficulty educating beneficiaries and delays in beneficiaries receiving their drug cards, the Cincinnati Enquirer reports (Bonfield, Cincinnati Enquirer, 6/2). "I think that people are overwhelmed. When seniors think about having to wade through it all by themselves, it's a little overwhelming," Lisa Wolfe, a communications director for AARP, said (Goldblatt, Wilmington News-Journal, 6/1). But Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, said, "Overall, it's an abysmal failure" (Newark Star-Ledger, 6/2). He added, "The nonresponse is not surprising. It's a combination of the complexity of the program and the meagerness of the benefit for most people." However, Elinor Ginzler, a spokesperson for AARP, said, "For many people, there are an exceptionally large number of choices. So it's not unrealistic to think that it will take time to sort through all of their card options" (Christian Science Monitor, 6/2).
Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Tuesday said he will hold a hearing next week to determine if the drug card program is working as Congress intended. In a statement, he said, "This hearing will give us a progress report from all perspectives. Then we can work to fix any shortcomings" (CongressDaily, 6/2).
Several broadcast programs reported on the Medicare drug discount cards going into effect:
- CBS' "Evening News": The segment includes comments from Hayes, Thompson and Medicare beneficiaries (Bowers, "Evening News," CBS, 6/1). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- CNN's "Live Today": The segment includes comments from Sharlea Leatherwood, president of the National Community Pharmacists Association and John Rother, policy director for AARP (Schiavone, "Live Today," CNN, 6/1). The complete transcript is available online.
- NBC's "Nightly News": The segment includes comments from pharmacist Jason Green; Elinor Ginzler, manager of the Independent Living/Long-Term Care Initiative at AARP; Michelle Lujan Grisham, secretary of the New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department; Thompson; and Medicare beneficiaries (Reid, "Nightly News," NBC, 6/1). The complete segment is available online in Windows Media.
- NPR's "Morning Edition": The segment includes comments from Marilyn Moon, health program director at the American Institutes for Research; Tricia Neuman, a Kaiser Family Foundation vice president and director of its Medicare Policy Project; Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA; and Thompson (Rovner, "Morning Edition," NPR, 6/2). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- WAMU's "The Diane Rehm Show": The segment will include comments from Julie Rovner, health policy correspondent for NPR, and Marilyn Werber Serafini, health care and welfare correspondent for National Journal (Rehm, "The Diane Rehm Show," WAMU, 6/2). The complete segment will be available online in RealPlayer after the broadcast.
- WBUR's "Here and Now": The segment includes comments from Pollack and Robert Skenderian, a pharmacist at Skenderian Apothecary (Young, "Here and Now," WBUR, 6/1). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- "Drug Cards Beget Shrugs, Not Buzz" (Pacenza, Albany Times-Union, 6/2).
- "Yet To Draw Big Interest, Medicare Cards Debut" (Snyder, Arizona Republic, 6/2).
- "Drug Discount Cards Draw Few" (Heldt Powell, Boston Herald, 6/2).
- "Medicare Official Pitches New Cards; Most at Talk Complain They Find the Program Confusing" (Kelley, Charlotte Observer, 6/2).
- "Many Seniors Say Drug Cards Aren't Right Prescription For Them" (Killackey/Parrott, Daily Oklahoman, 6/1).
- "Seniors Tepid on New Drug Cards" (Austin, Denver Post, 6/2).
- "New Medicare Scams" (Leys, Des Moines Register, 6/2).
- "New Medicare Drug Cards Baffle Seniors" (Hall, Detroit News, 6/2).
- "Picking Medicare Drug Card Big Gamble" (Harrington, Knoxville News-Sentinel, 6/1).
- "Medicare Drug Plan Off to a Slow Start" (MacKeen, Long Island Newsday, 6/1).
- "Questions Mount, But Answers Scarce" (Dorschner, Miami Herald, 6/2).
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