Some Medicare Beneficiaries Confused as Drug Plan Enrollment Begins
Enrollment in the new Medicare prescription drug benefit began on Tuesday, and there are "early indications that many [beneficiaries] will need an antidote for the outbreak of confusion and frustration that accompanied it," the Washington Post reports (Lee, Washington Post, 11/16). According to the New York Times, many beneficiaries said they "needed more time, more information and more advice before they could decide whether to sign up" (Pear, New York Times, 11/16).
Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, said his organization received many calls on Tuesday about the new benefit. "At this point, we're urging calm and just wait a few weeks to give yourself time to sort things out," he said. Hayes added that the drug plan finder tool on Medicare's Web site can be inaccessible and can provide conflicting information as plan providers change prices and terms (Washington Post, 11/16).
Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack said many seniors have never been online and will be confused by the tool (CQ HealthBeat, 11/15).
CMS spokesperson Gary Karr said officials are working to expand the capacity of the Web site to prevent delays.
CMS Administrator Mark McClellan said, "You've got plenty of time to make a decision, and we have plenty of help available."
HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said enrolling Medicare beneficiaries in the new benefit will be a "monumental challenge" but added that the benefit will be worth the difficulties (Washington Post, 11/16).
Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, said, "When Medicare reform was signed into law, no one would have predicted that just two years later premiums for prescription drug plans would be significantly lower than expected and that most beneficiaries would have access to zero-premium and zero-deductible plans" (CQ HealthBeat, 11/15). She added that health plans are improving toll-free hotlines and running public service announcements to help beneficiaries make a decision (CongressDaily, 11/15).
In related news, some Democratic members of Congress proposed legislation on Tuesday to extend the deadline for enrollment in the drug benefit by up to six months (New York Times, 11/16). Currently, Medicare beneficiaries have until May 15 to enroll, after which time they will pay a financial penalty for late enrollment.
At a news conference, lawmakers said the drug benefit is too confusing for beneficiaries and many need more time to choose a plan.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is sponsoring a bill (S 1841) that would extend the enrollment deadline to January 2007 -- thus postponing penalties for beneficiaries who do not enroll by May 15 -- and allow beneficiaries to change their plans. "The deadline is like an ax over the seniors' heads," Nelson said, adding, "The seniors are confused and frightened because they feel they cannot make an informed choice" (CQ HealthBeat, 11/15).
Some Senate Democrats said they will offer a unanimous consent agreement on Wednesday that would extend the enrollment period (Heil, CongressDaily, 11/15).
However, Leavitt said it will not be necessary to extend the enrollment period, adding that CMS expects 28 million to 30 million beneficiaries to enroll in drug plans by May 15. Leavitt said, "Six months is a long time for an open enrollment period. I feel confident we can get it done" (CQ HealthBeat, 11/15).
Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune reports that CMS mistakenly sent a letter intended for dual eligibles to an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Illinois residents in SeniorCare, a state pharmaceutical assistance program for seniors with "slightly higher incomes."
The letter said recipients will be automatically enrolled in one of the drug plans and receive financial assistance with their medications, even if they do not enroll. However, according to the Tribune, only dual eligibles will be enrolled in a drug plan automatically, and other low-income beneficiaries will have to enroll in a plan separately and apply for financial assistance with the Social Security Administration.
Illinois is planning to enroll the 200,000 SeniorCare members and 45,000 members of the companion Circuit Breaker program in a wrap-around benefit that will be called Illinois Cares Rx. The state recently sent a letter to members of the two plans saying it will enroll them in either UnitedHealth Group's Medicare Rx Plan or PacifiCare Health System's Saver plan.
Jackie Garner, administrator of Medicare's Midwest offices, said, "We're not quite sure how it happened. We're trying to figure it out."
Anne Murphy, director of Illinois' Medicaid program, said enrollment of Illinois Cares Rx members in the UnitedHealth Group and PacifiCare plans will override any erroneous enrollment actions by the federal government. She also said the state is sending members a letter informing them of the error.
Medicare is considering sending a similar letter, Greg Chesmore, a spokesperson for Garner, said (Graham, Chicago Tribune, 11/16).
Several broadcast programs reported on the confusion among beneficiaries surrounding Medicare enrollment:
- ABCNews' "World News Tonight": The segment includes comments from Hayes; Cheryl Matheis, director of health strategies integration for AARP; and Medicare beneficiaries (Stark, "World News Tonight," ABCNews, 11/15).
- CBS' "Evening News": The segment includes comments from Hayes and Medicare beneficiaries (Alfonsi, "Evening News," CBS, 11/15). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- KCRW's "To the Point": The segment includes comments from Mary Grealy, president of the Healthcare Leadership Council; McClellan; Tricia Neuman, a Kaiser Family Foundation vice president and director of its Medicare Policy Project; and Pollack (Olney, "To the Point," KCRW, 11/15). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Talk of the Nation": The segment includes comments from Leavitt; Neuman; and Julie Rovner, NPR health policy correspondent (Conan, "Talk of the Nation," NPR, 11/15). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.