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Medicare Drug Benefit Enrollment up 1.5 Million in Past Month

FEBRUARY 22, 2006 -- The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced Wednesday that the number of Medicare beneficiaries who have signed up individually for the new Medicare drug benefit has grown by 1.5 million in the past 30 days.

About five million beneficiaries have signed up as individuals, HHS said in a press release.

"Individual enrollment" refers to beneficiaries who sign up for the private "stand-alone" drug plans offered to beneficiaries in traditional fee-for-service Medicare and those who enroll in Medicare Advantage plans—managed care plans in Medicare that also offer the new drug benefit.

HHS Secretary Michael O. Leavitt told reporters in a press briefing Wednesday in Pensacola, Fla., that overall enrollment in the Medicare drug benefit is 25,397,391, including the five million individual enrollees.

Most of the 25.4 million beneficiaries already had drug coverage before the drug benefit began, but their prescription benefits are now subsidized by the Medicare program. Examples of such beneficiaries include people who already were in Medicare Advantage plans before the new drug benefit began, retirees whose benefits come from former employers, and federal retirees.

The liberal advocacy group Families USA said the new numbers are misleading and that most beneficiaries had drug coverage that was "at least as good" before they signed up for the Medicare program.

"Perhaps most tragically, only a tiny fraction of the low-income seniors who could most benefit from the new program are new receiving drug coverage," said Ron Pollack, the group's executive director.

Leavitt said that the 25.4 million figure means HHS is well on its way toward meeting its first year goal of enrolling 28 million to 30 million Medicare beneficiaries in the drug benefit. Altogether, Medicare has 43 million beneficiaries.

He added that the worst days of implementing the benefit now appear to be over, saying that once a beneficiary successfully fills a prescription for the first time, use of the benefit is smooth thereafter.

Leavitt also boasted that competition has driven down premium costs and predicted that market forces would soon sort out the confusion seniors have experienced picking a drug plan. The plans that draw the most seniors will be easier to understand and will be "more standardized," he said.

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