Social Security Administration To Test Assistance Application for Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit
About 2,050 randomly selected Medicare beneficiaries will begin to test an application for financial assistance under the new prescription drug benefit through a new pilot program, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports. Under the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which will take effect in 2006, beneficiaries with annual incomes at or less than 150% of the federal poverty level and assets that do not exceed a certain level will qualify for at least partial discounts on premiums, deductibles and other fees. Beneficiaries who are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid will not have to pay the fees.
The Social Security Administration must contact Medicare beneficiaries who might quality for discounts on the fees, and the agency plans to use the pilot program to identify potential problems with the 16-question application.
However, according to SSA spokesperson Mary Mahler, the agency will not have time to correct problems before 20 million additional applications are mailed to Medicare beneficiaries this year. She said that SSA will work to address problems with the application through outreach and publicity campaigns. "The issue is confusion about what this is all about to begin with," Mahler said, adding, "We want to see how many people fill it out and if they have problems with the application."
Medicare beneficiaries involved in the pilot program who do not return applications within two weeks will receive telephone calls from SSA.
Robert Hayes, director of the Medicare Rights Center, called the application "badly flawed," adding, "We and other consumer groups gave Social Security a good deal of comments on how to simplify the applications, and these comments were largely ignored." He said that several questions on the application are long and confusing, which could prompt Medicare beneficiaries not to complete the application.
Hayes also criticized a warning on the application that states Medicare beneficiaries who provide false information "may be sent to prison or may face other penalties, or both." He said, "These are very poor people getting these letters. They are older and sicker than the average person on Medicare and least able to dig through the lengthy application" (Jaffe, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 3/21).
In related news, the Orlando Sentinel on Monday examined how many low-income Medicare beneficiaries who qualify for a $600 subsidy under the Medicare prescription drug discount card program remain unaware of the available financial assistance. According to the federal government, an estimated seven million Medicare beneficiaries qualify for the $600 subsidy for 2005, but only 1.73 million of those had enrolled as of Feb. 28.
Eligible Medicare beneficiaries who enroll before March 31 will receive the full $600 subsidy, and those who enroll after that date will receive a $150 to $450 subsidy for the remainder of the year based on the date of enrollment. Medicare is working to educate beneficiaries about the subsidy before the March 31 deadline.
However, according to Tricia Neuman, a Kaiser Family Foundation vice president and director of its Medicare Policy Project, "This is just a hard population to reach." She added, "A key obstacle is that anytime you offer a new benefit, there's a huge learning curve until a large number of people really know about it and then go through the process of applying for it" (Shelton, Orlando Sentinel, 3/21).