Senate Democrats Introduce Bill To Automatically Enroll Low-Income Medicare Beneficiaries in Discount Card Program
Responding to criticism from Republicans that they are trying to deter Medicare beneficiaries from signing up for the new prescription drug discount cards, Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that would facilitate automatic enrollment of low-income beneficiaries, CongressDaily reports (Rovner/Heil, CongressDaily, 5/13). 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, 5/11). Under the Democrats' bill, which affects an estimated 700,000 low-income Medicare beneficiaries who are not eligible for Medicaid but who receive special help through other programs, those who do not choose a card by Aug. 15 would be enrolled in the program automatically and would receive the $600 subsidy. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who introduced the bill with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), said the Bush administration should have the authority to enact automatic enrollment, although Thompson has not yet responded to a letter sent in April asking him to implement the policy (Rovner/Heil, CongressDaily, 5/13).
House Ways and Means Chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) on Wednesday refuted some Democrats' charges that the drug card program is too confusing, adding that a study released last month by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is premature and "reached a conclusion before the process had ever really begun," according to CongressDaily (Rovner, CongressDaily, 5/13). The study showed that prices available through the Medicare prescription drug discount card program are about the same or higher than what beneficiaries would pay for the same 10 drugs from Internet pharmacies Drugstore.com and Costco.com (California Healthline, 4/30). Thomas said that since the study was done, some card sponsors have offered more significant discounts and new cards have been added to the program offering better prices. Johnson said, "Discount cards save seniors money, and you can take it to the bank. The only barrier between seniors and those savings are those who would mislead them into thinking the discount cards don't do anything." Waxman said that "no matter how much Republicans torture the data, it is evident that the cards won't give seniors the savings they need" (Rovner, CongressDaily, 5/13). A separate study commissioned by the Healthcare Leadership Council and completed by the Lewin Group found that beneficiaries who enroll in the new drug card program could save more than 20% on common prescriptions depending on the card they choose. Based on drug prices posted this week, the study found overall average savings of 15.3% on the 25 most common prescriptions. HLC President Mary Grealy said, "If any politically motivated group convinces seniors not to sign up, that is inappropriate ... and needs to be stopped" (Rovner/Heil, CongressDaily, 5/13). CBS' "Evening News" on Thursday reported on confusion about the new Medicare prescription drug discount cards. The segment includes comments from Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack, Thompson and Medicare beneficiaries (Orr, "Evening News," CBS, 5/13). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
Although it "sounded like a policy turnaround" when Thompson said last week that "Congress is going to pass" legislation that would allow U.S. residents to purchase lower-priced prescription drugs from abroad, the Bush administration "still strongly opposes the legislation" and Thompson himself does not "embrac[e] the idea, just recogniz[es] the inevitable," a Los Angeles Times editorial states. Still, the "crusade to legalize drug imports" is growing, according to the editorial. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will consider a reimportation bill (S 2328) by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) that would address the Bush administration's "key public objection to re-importation: that it would endanger public health," the editorial states. According to the editorial, Snowe's bill would allow states to put in place systems "to help people buy medications manufactured in FDA-approved facilities and shipped back to the United States in their original packages." CMS Administrator Mark McClellan has said that until the HHS Task Force on Drug Importation finishes its study on the practice, Medicare beneficiaries can find prescription drug savings through the new drug discount cards, but the editorial says the cards "are proving to be a bust." Snowe's bill, "by contrast, could offer relief now," the editorial concludes (Los Angeles Times, 5/14).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.