Enrollments in Medicare drug benefit rise | VailDaily.com

Enrollments in Medicare drug benefit rise

WASHINGTON – About 5.4 million people have signed up for the new Medicare drug benefit over the past three months, a number that the Bush administration trumpeted Wedneday but others said was indicative of the program’s problems.The enrollees represent a quarter of the 22 million elderly and disabled people who could voluntarily enroll in the program.An additional 20 million were automatically enrolled because they were covered previously by their employer, Medicaid or other government programs.The latest numbers show that beneficiaries are warming to the program, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said from Pensacola, Fla. “We wouldn’t have 250,000 to 400,000 people a week enrolling if it wasn’t a good deal for seniors.”But Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., had a different take after speaking with about 100 senior citizens in his state Wednesday morning.”I can’t debate numbers. I can only reflect that there’s real deep anger and hostility at all the snafus, all the problems,” Levin said. “I’m glad I voted against this program.”Levin said the senior citizens voiced frustration with the program’s complexity and with how long it took to get answers to their questions.”There’s more than just a lot of bugs and startup snafus,” he said. “There’s some real structural problems.”In the first few weeks, some of the poorest elderly and disabled Americans were not automatically enrolled in the benefit as required. Many were also charged higher co-payments than they were supposed to have paid. Most states stepped in to help pay for some of their residents’ medicine.Leavitt said the program is working much more smoothly now. He expressed confidence that insurers would make it easier for beneficiaries to understand the benefit and to reduce the dozens of plan choices available to them.”The market will simplify this in the same way it’s driven the costs down” he said.The administration initially had highlighted the wide variety of choice that consumers in most states had.The administration has said repeatedly over the past year that it expects 28 million to 30 million people to enroll in the benefit this year. The deadline for enrollment is May 15.Some health care analysts critical of the drug benefit said the enrollment numbers are misleading unless people realize the large majority of enrollees already had coverage through Medicaid, their employer, or though other government programs.Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said the Bush administration once cited loftier expectations for enrollment. In the Federal Register in January 2005, HHS said 39.1 million beneficiaries would have drug coverage because of the new program.”If enrollment is exceeding expectations, it is only because expectations have been greatly diminished,” he said.Under the new benefit, senior citizens and the disabled are eligible to participate in a private drug plan or in a Medicare Advantage plan that will cover a portion of their drug costs.The insurers get a subsidy from the federal government to provide the benefit, and beneficiaries also pay monthly premiums, as well as co-payments and a deductible. The cost to the beneficiary depends upon the plan they select.The poor are eligible for additional subsidies that greatly reduce the cost of their medicine.—On the Net:Official Medicare site: http://www.medicare.govVail, Colorado

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