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Drug Benefit Enrollment Numbers Grow Amid Criticism Over Deadline

MAY 10, 2006 -- Democrats continued Wednesday to call for an extension of the May 15 Medicare drug benefit enrollment deadline as Bush administration officials released new enrollment figures and urged beneficiaries to enroll before the deadline.

More than 1 million Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in the prescription drug plan (PL 108-173) between late April and May 6. The new total of beneficiaries in stand-alone prescription drug plans is about 9 million with more than 1 million Medicare beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage plans that offer health and prescription drug benefits, according to new government figures.

When all sources for drug coverage are taken into account, 37 million Medicare beneficiaries now are receiving some form of prescription drug benefit, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said in a conference call with reporters.

About 6 million "dual-eligibles"—beneficiaries who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid but now receive their drug coverage under Medicare as part of the drug benefit—are part of the 37 million, as are about 6 million beneficiaries who already were enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans.

Medicare prescription drug subsidies help pay for drug coverage for about 7 million retirees while federal retirees account for 3.5 million of that 37 million figure. In addition, 5.8 million Medicare beneficiaries have alternative sources of "credible" drug coverage, such as through the Department of Veterans Affairs or through a current employer, according to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services calculations.

Critics of the drug benefit took issue with the new figures, saying they present too rosy of a picture of enrollment in the Medicare drug benefit.

"According to the Bush administration's Enron-style accounting, at least 6.5 million people remain without any prescription drug coverage," said Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif. "But the real number of seniors and people with disabilities lacking comprehensive drug coverage is undoubtedly higher."

Medicare Rights Center President Robert M. Hayes said the administration's enrollment estimates tell only a part of the story. "No amount of exaggeration can disguise two central facts: over 80 percent of impoverished people with Medicare eligible for a comprehensive drug benefit have not enrolled; nearly 51 percent of the people with Medicare who had no drug coverage on Jan. 1 still have no coverage," he said. The center estimates that about 9 million Medicare beneficiaries still lack drug coverage, Hayes said.

In an April 24 letter to CMS Administrator Mark B. McClellan, AARP Chief Executive Officer William D. Novelli urged CMS to eliminate "the cumbersome and unnecessary asset test" that beneficiaries must complete before qualifying for financial assistance available to low-income beneficiaries. The test is used to limit the amount of assets a beneficiary can have and still qualify for low-income assistance.

Novelli wrote that McClellan could use authority granted to CMS as part of the Medicare drug law (PL 108-173) to eliminate questions on the low-income subsidy application form that deal with life insurance and burial expenses, among other items.

McClellan said Wednesday that CMS does not have the authority to make such changes and questioned if they were really necessary. "Most people with limited incomes don't have a life insurance policy or a whole bunch of money set aside for other activities. . . . Most people don't even get to those questions," McClellan said, adding that CMS would continue to evaluate the form.

Meanwhile Wednesday, Democratic leaders and seniors rallied on Capitol Hill to push for an extension of the May 15 Medicare drug plan enrollment deadline.

"The White House botched the implementation of the prescription drug plan and millions have been unable to navigate their way through the confusing sign-up process," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "It is time for Republicans to put America's seniors first and extend this deadline."

If beneficiaries do not enroll in the drug benefit by May 15 they will pay a lifetime penalty equal to 1 percent of their premium for every month after May 15 that they were eligible for the benefit but not enrolled. The Bush administration has said it does not plan to extend the deadline.

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