President Bush Launches Campaign To Promote Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit
President Bush in a speech at HHS on Thursday launched a nationwide campaign to promote the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which begins Jan. 1, 2006, describing the benefit as "the greatest advance in health care for seniors since the founding of Medicare," the New York Times reports.
"We're on a massive education effort, starting today, and I am asking for America's help," Bush said (Pear, New York Times, 6/17). He added, "Together, we will work to ensure that every American on Medicare is ready to make a confident choice about prescription drug coverage, so they can finally receive the modern health care they deserve" (CQ HealthBeat, 6/16).
Bush said that, "[o]n average, Medicare beneficiaries will receive more than $1,300 in federal assistance to pay for prescription drugs," adding, "Seniors with no drug coverage and average prescription expenses will see their drug bills reduced by half or more" (New York Times, 6/17). Bush also said that "[b]eneficiaries should make their decisions as soon as they are ready because enrolling before May  will ensure that they pay the lowest possible premiums" (Riechmann, AP/Long Island Newsday, 6/16).
On Friday, Bush will promote the new benefit to about 350 seniors and health care workers in a Minneapolis suburb. According to CMS Administrator Mark McClellan, Bush chose to speak in Minnesota because it is "one of many places around the country where there are ... lots of seniors who need to know the facts so they can make a confident decision about Medicare drug coverage."
White House Deputy Press Secretary Trent Duffy said Bush plans to make other stops (Stassen-Berger, St. Paul Pioneer Press, 6/17).
Although specific information on the Medicare drug plans is not yet available, CMS officials hope the campaign will "raise awareness" about the drug benefit "to give Medicare beneficiaries time to understand the changes that will occur," the Wall Street Journal reports (Wall Street Journal, 6/17).
Beginning in October, CMS will mail to each beneficiary a booklet containing details about the specific drug plans. Beneficiaries then will have between Nov. 15 and May 15, 2006, to enroll in the new benefit (New York Times, 6/17). According to the Los Angeles Times, the national publicity campaign that begins this week will involve a number of federal agencies, including the Social Security Administration and the departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Veterans Affairs. For example, the Transportation Department will collaborate with cities and states to post information on the new drug benefit on buses and in highway rest stops. SSA is working with low-income beneficiaries and others who might need help enrolling in the new benefit (Chen, Los Angeles Times, 6/17).
The outreach effort also will include doctors, nurses, pharmacists, local leaders, community groups and religious organizations (AP/Long Island Newsday, 6/16). Officials estimate the government will spend $300 million in fiscal year 2005 on the campaign (CQ HealthBeat, 6/16).
During his speech on Thursday, Bush also promoted the new Medicare preventive care benefits. Medicare "is about to become even better," he said, noting that the 2003 Medicare law is "bringing preventive medicine, better health care choices and prescription drugs to every American receiving Medicare." He said the new preventive care coverage will save taxpayers money by addressing health problems at an earlier stage and averting the need for more costly treatments later (Los Angeles Times, 6/17).
HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said, "This is the main event for HHS this year" (Rovner, CongressDaily, 6/16). He added, "We're preparing the nation for a large conversation. It may be a daughter sitting down with her parents, ... it may be a youth volunteer. We're creating information now" to drive such discussions (CQ HealthBeat, 6/16).
McClellan said the Bush administration learned from its experiences trying to enroll Medicare beneficiaries in the temporary prescription drug discount program launched last year and officials are working to ensure enrollment in the permanent benefit is smoother (Benedetto, USA Today, 6/17). McClellan said that CMS is targeting its messages to different populations of Medicare beneficiaries, including those already enrolled in HMOs, those who receive drug coverage through a former employer and dual eligibles (CongressDaily, 6/16).
"We will reach people where they work, live, play and pray," he said (New York Times, 6/17). McClellan noted that the federal government expects 28 million to 30 million Medicare beneficiaries to sign up for drug coverage in the first year, based on Wall Street analysts' projections (CongressDaily, 6/16).
According to the Los Angeles Times, the new drug benefit "appears to be popular among seniors," but its "projected price tag seems certain to erode Medicare's financial viability." Before the addition of the new drug benefit, Medicare faced $27.7 trillion in unfunded liabilities over 75 years, according to the Government Accountability Office. GAO said the new benefit added $8.1 trillion to the program's viability over the same time period.
"Medicare is by far a more serious problem than Social Security," Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute, said, adding, "It's hard to understand why an administration that's been so responsible on Social Security is so irresponsible in dealing with Medicare." Cannon said that the cost of the new drug benefit likely will increase, noting, "As with all entitlements, the cost is going to vastly exceed projections" (Los Angeles Times, 6/17).
Pamela Meliso, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy, said the new benefit "is very confusing and people are panicking." She added that beneficiaries might have trouble understanding the mailings they have begun to receive because specific information about the drug plans is not yet available (St. Paul Pioneer Press, 6/17).
Cheryl Matheis, director of the Medicare outreach campaign for AARP, said, "The research we've been doing" shows that "public awareness [of the benefit] is very low right now."
Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, said the nationwide effort to educate Medicare beneficiaries about the benefit is necessary because "the administration and Congress chose to create the single most-complex, large-scale benefit program in the history of the United States" (Connolly, Washington Post, 6/17).
In related news, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) on Thursday called on congressional Republicans to hold oversight hearings on implementation of the new drug benefit. Lewis noted that some low-income beneficiaries had received empty envelopes in a recent mailing about the benefit (CQ HealthBeat, 6/16).
CMS in May conducted its first mass mailing of the education effort, sending information to 4.7 million low-income beneficiaries. The agency last week said that an "unknown number" of Medicare beneficiaries received empty envelopes instead of letters informing them about eligibility requirements for financial subsidies under the new drug benefit (California Healthline, 6/8).
A CMS official said the agency has received fewer than 100 phone calls about the problem, and officials have resent the information to the affected beneficiaries (CQ HealthBeat, 6/16).
Additional information on the Medicare drug benefit is available online.