Senator Says He Has Support To Extend Medicare Drug Benefit Enrollment Period
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said that he has adequate support to pass a bill that would extend the enrollment period for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit until Dec. 31, 2006, The Hill reports. Under current law, Medicare beneficiaries have until May 15, 2006, to enroll in the prescription drug benefit without penalty.
Nelson spokesperson Brian Gulley said, "We are going to try to attach our language to the first available vehicle when we come back in January." He added, "It would be the quickest way to get our language passed, as opposed to having to go through the committee gantlet. We have to get this thing passed as quickly as we can."
Last month, Nelson attempted to attach the bill as an amendment to a budget reconciliation package, but the legislation failed to receive the 60 votes required to waive a stipulation that ruled the amendment out of order; senators voted 51-47 to waive the stipulation.
According to Gulley, the vote indicated the bipartisan support required to pass the bill.
All Democratic senators present -- as well as Sens. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and John Warner (R-Va.) -- voted to waive the stipulation. However, a "strong lobbying push from the Bush administration" could change some of the votes in the future, according to the Hill (Sheffield, The Hill, 12/8).
In related news, health officials in several states have reported that staffing shortages and the high number of Medicare beneficiaries who require counseling on the prescription drug benefit have led to delays in counseling and enrollment in the program, USA Today reports.
For example, Matt Denn, insurance commissioner for Delaware, said that the state has four staff members to counsel 120,000 Medicare beneficiaries. He added that staff members answer about 40 telephone calls daily and have to leave about 60 calls unanswered.
Officials in Oregon and Missouri said that they are two weeks behind in responses to telephone calls, and officials in New York, Michigan and Phoenix, reported similar problems.
State and local officials have requested additional funds, staff and laptop computers from the federal government to address the issue.
Kathleen Harrington of CMS said that states "are one resource" for counseling on the Medicare prescription drug benefit, adding, "There are plenty of others" (Wolf, USA Today, 12/8).
The AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel examines the lack of approved applications for a subsidy that provides financial assistance for the Medicare prescription drug benefit. The Social Security Administration has received about 3.8 million applications for the subsidy -- which provides financial assistance for Medicare beneficiaries who have annual incomes less than 150% of the federal poverty level and limited assets -- and has approved only 661,000; one million applications remain under review.
SSA sent letters to 19 million Medicare beneficiaries who might qualify for the subsidy and later made nine million telephone calls and sent an additional five million letters.
Karr said, "We've had multiple events targeting that population, and obviously with these numbers, we're going to continue that." He added, "It's always difficult to reach the population that we're targeting here, but we're going to keep that up because the coverage is so important."
James Firman, chair of the Access to Benefits Coalition, said that the numbers are "disappointing but not unexpected." He added, "We knew it was going to be difficult to find and enroll people. We also knew the strategy of going to 19 million people was likely to backfire" (Freking, AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/8).
Additional information on the Medicare drug benefit is available online.