Republicans, Democrats Discuss Medicare Prescription Drug Discount Card Program as Enrollment Begins
Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Monday met with constituents nationwide to discuss the new Medicare prescription drug discount card program, which began to enroll beneficiaries on Monday, the Chicago Tribune reports (Meyer, Chicago Tribune, 5/4). The program, established as part of the new Medicare law, makes discounts cards available to beneficiaries who do not have prescription drug coverage through Medicaid. Companies that offer the discount cards 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. HHS has approved a number of private companies to offer different discount cards to Medicare beneficiaries. Medicare beneficiaries with annual incomes of less than $12,569 for individuals or $16,862 for couples will qualify for a $600 annual subsidy for their prescription drug costs and will not have to pay enrollment fees. Medicare 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 included to date on the Web site offer average savings of about 17% for brand-name medications drugs and 30% for generic treatments. Discounts will become available in June (California Healthline, 5/3).
In Yorkville, Ill., House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and CMS Administrator Mark McClellan hosted a forum to encourage Medicare beneficiaries to enroll in the discount card program and to explain the benefits. "On June 1, seniors will begin to see real savings," Hastert said (Chicago Tribune, 5/4). McClellan called the program "an important first step toward the more comprehensive prescription drug benefit," which begins in 2006 (CongressDaily, 5/3). He added, "This is a historic day in Medicare because for the first time ever, we've got a program set up for seniors who don't have drug benefits" (Welch, USA Today, 5/4). At an event in Washington, D.C., Thompson said, "The power to save on prescription drugs is now in the hands of seniors and people with disabilities. Seniors should compare prices and choose the card that's best for them" (Connolly, Washington Post, 5/4). Thompson said that he expected "a few bumps in the road" in the launch of the program, and he encouraged Medicare beneficiaries to wait a few weeks and compare the different discount cards before they select one (Colliver, San Francisco Chronicle, 5/4). Thompson predicted that the savings offered by the discount cards would increase as competition for Medicare beneficiaries increases, adding that card sponsors "are going to be very, very cognizant of what other people are charging." He also "dismissed a call from Democrats for a 30-day grace period in which card holders could change their minds" about which discount cards they should select, the AP/Las Vegas Sun reports (Burghart, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 5/3). On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and 11 other Senate Democrats sent a letter to Thompson to request the grace period because of the "confusing process" for enrollment in the discount card program. Under current program rules, beneficiaries can switch discount cards only one time each year (California Healthline, 5/3). In Nashville, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) met with beneficiaries and demonstrated how the calculator on the Medicare Web site can help them find the discount cards that offer the most savings for their medications (Washington Post, 5/4). In Connecticut, Reps. Christopher Hays (R-Conn.) and Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) also held events to promote the discount cards (MacDonald, Hartford Courant, 5/4).
Democrats also met with constituents on Monday and criticized the discount card program. In Chicago, Reps. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) warned beneficiaries that the program is "overrated," according to the Tribune. "If you're a senior, think twice before you sign up for a discount card," Durbin said, adding that he has introduced a bill in the Senate that would help allow Medicare to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for discounts on their products. Schakowsky said, "The only way we can bring seniors a real prescription drug benefit is to repeal the Republican Medicare drug law and replace it with a Medicare benefit that is simple and clear, a Medicare benefit that will actually bring down the prices" (Chicago Tribune, 5/4). At a forum for Medicare beneficiaries in Washington, D.C., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, that the discount card program "sounds like a good deal, but it isn't." She added, "Just like the president's drug bill, the big drug and insurance companies control what discounts seniors will get and how much they will pay" (USA Today, 5/4). Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) said, "The cards provide maximum confusion and minimal savings. These deep discounts were a figment of the Republicans' imagination" (Pear, New York Times, 5/4). In addition, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) distributed a chart that indicated savings available through the discount card program in many cases are less than those available through the Department of Veterans Affairs or the online pharmacy Drugstore.com (Washington Post, 5/4). Peter Neupert, chair of Drugstore.com, said, "In general, our prices are lower than those offered by many of the Medicare card sponsors. Our operating costs are a bit lower than those of bricks-and-mortar drugstores" (New York Times, 5/4).
Meanwhile, confusion over "drug prices posted on the Medicare Web site continued Monday," according to the Post (Washington Post, 5/4). On Friday, some discount card sponsors said that the Web site is "full of inaccurate, erroneous information." McClellan said that the that the discount information included on the Web site is accurate, adding that the disagreement from card sponsors involves rules that require them to ensure pharmacies charge the prices listed on the site (California Healthline, 5/3). Kelley Gannon, a spokesperson for National Association of Chain Drug Stores, said that Medicare beneficiaries should visit discount card sponsor Web sites for accurate information (Washington Post, 5/4). Edward Coyle, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, said, "No one in their right mind can make sense of how the cards are going to work, what drugs will be offered and where by what plans, or what paltry savings might be recognized." Pelosi added, "Drug companies have already begun increasing their prices so that they can offer 'discounts' without losing a dime in profits" (Heavey, Reuters/Washington Times, 5/4).
Several broadcast programs reported on concerns about the discount card program:
- ABCNews' "World News Tonight": The segment includes comments from Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack and Thompson (Stark, "World News Tonight," ABCNews, 5/3). A video excerpt of the segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- CNN's "Wolf Blitzer Reports": The segment includes comments from Pelosi (Callebs, "Wolf Blitzer Reports," CNN, 5/3). The complete transcript is available online.
- MPR's "Marketplace Morning Report": The segment includes comments from Elinor Ginzler, manager of the Independent Living/Long-Term Care Initiative at AARP (Wicai, "Marketplace Morning Report," MPR, 5/3). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NBC's "Nightly News": The segment includes comments from Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), Pelosi and Thompson (Reid, "Nightly News," NBC, 5/3). The complete transcript and video of the segment in Windows Media are available online.
- NPR's "All Things Considered": The segment includes comments from NACDS President Craig Fuller; Medicare staff member Joe Gaiser; Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center; Pelosi; and Thompson (Rovner, "All Things Considered," NPR, 5/3). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Morning Edition": The segment includes comments from Gaiser, Hayes, Thompson and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) (Rovner, "Morning Edition," NPR, 5/4). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- PBS' "Nightly Business Report": The segment includes comments from Fuller, Ginzler and Thompson (Woods, "Nightly Business Report," PBS, 5/3). The complete transcript is available online.
- WBUR's "Here and Now": The segment includes comments from Stuart Altman, health economist and professor of national health policy at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University (Delaney/Young, "Here and Now," WBUR, 5/3). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.