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Medicare Drug Enrollment Grows

MARCH 23, 2006 -- The Bush administration announced Thursday that an additional 1.9 million seniors had signed up for the Medicare prescription drug benefit in the last month.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said the number of beneficiaries who had signed up individually for the drug plan now totals 7.2 million.

"We are very pleased that more and more people with Medicare are taking advantage of this important benefit. Strong and steady enrollment has continued this month," Leavitt said.

Overall, about 27 million seniors are enrolled in drug coverage under Medicare. Of that, 6.4 million low-income seniors who qualified for both Medicaid and Medicare were automatically enrolled in prescription drug plans or managed care plans that include prescription drug benefits. Some 5.7 million are enrolled in managed care plans that offer drug coverage. About 6.2 million retirees are enrolled through the Medicare retiree subsidy and 1.4 million retirees are enrolled in employer and union-sponsored coverage that incorporates Medicare drug coverage. An additional 3.5 million seniors are covered through federal plans.

Seniors have until May 15 to sign up for a drug plan without being charged a penalty.

"There will be a surge at the end," Leavitt said. "They can avoid that rush by signing up now. We recommend people not wait until the end."

Last-minute sign-ups and changes to plan choices caused some seniors problems getting their drugs in January because the databases had missing or incorrect information. Leavitt is trying to avoid a recurrence after the May 15 deadline.

Responding to complaints that the drug benefit has been confusing and complicated for seniors, Leavitt said, "We're starting to discuss Medicare version 2.0. We know it needs to be simpler and more streamlined."

Meanwhile, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., released a report he said shows that many prescription plans are limiting access to drugs through the use of prior authorization requirements and caps without disclosing the terms to seniors.

But Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Mark McClellan said the report "appears to be misleading" and that formularies and prior authorization requirements in Medicare plans can be more generous than the Veterans Administration program and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
"AARP is encouraged that enrollment in the Medicare prescription drug program remains strong," said Bill Novelli, chief executive of the seniors' lobby AARP.

"The focus right now needs to be on helping people, not playing politics. Discouraging enrollment is a disservice to the millions who could be saving money on prescription drug bills."

Democrats have been working to make the drug benefit a campaign issue, saying Republicans wrote a bill geared toward special interests and bungled the implementation of the new program. Republicans, in turn, have accused them of scaring seniors into not signing up for the plan.

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