Officials refusing to extend deadline for enrollment
They expect to enroll 90 percent of the 43 million eligible seniors by May 15.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- An additional 1.7 million seniors have signed up for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit in the past month, and administration officials said Thursday they have exceeded their goal for the year with 25 days left before the enrollment deadline.
The officials rejected demands from some lawmakers that the May 15 deadline be extended to give people more time to study the plan alternatives, saying that would only lead to fewer enrollees.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said in a telephone news conference that more than 30 million Medicare beneficiaries are new receiving prescription drug coverage, surpassing projections of 28 million to 30 million enrollees in the first year of the program.
HHS said in a statement that 8.1 million people with Medicare are now enrolled in stand-alone prescription drug plans, an increase of 1.7 million in the last four weeks. The rest were signed up automatically because of participation in current programs, such as Medicare Advantage plans with drug coverage.
"Seniors are seeing the benefits of the [Medicare] Part D plan," Leavitt said, estimating that some seniors are already saving $500 to $700 a month in drug expenses.
Leavitt said that if enrollment rates continue at the current pace, they may be able to enroll 90 percent of the estimated 43 million eligible seniors by May 15.
Leavitt, speaking from California, was joined by Mark McClellan, the administration's top Medicare official, in Texas. The two are participating in some 5,500 events scheduled between now and May 15 to discuss the new prescription drug benefit and urge people to sign up.
The two also downplayed incidents, reported by USA Today Thursday, of insurers warning thousands of seniors that they stand to lose their coverage because of failure to pay premiums.
McClellan indicated that part of the problem is that it usually takes the Social Security Administration two months to begin automatic withdrawals for premium payments. He said his office is talking to the insurers and is advising seniors receiving letters about nonpayments to contact their insurance plans and the Medicare office.
Leavitt and McClellan said that, in addition to the 30 million Medicare beneficiaries, almost 6 million have prescription drug coverage through other sources, such as the Veteran's Administration, Indian Health Service or their employers. They said that of those still without coverage, many are people eligible for the low-income subsidy or those who are now taking few prescription drugs.
But critics say most of the 30 million were automatically enrolled from existing programs, noting that only 8.1 million have voluntarily signed up for the stand-alone plan.
They argue, in pushing legislation that would extend the deadline through the end of the year and waive late enrollment penalties, that the complexity of the new program has discouraged seniors from participating. Seniors must choose among dozens of plans that differ in premiums, drug coverage and cost-sharing.
"For this $1.3 trillion program, the administration now reveals that less than 20 percent of people with Medicare have new drug coverage," or about 8.1 million of 43 million people who are eligible, said Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center. "Others have somewhat better coverage; others are worse off."
But McClellan said that a deadline extension would result in an estimated 2 million fewer enrollees. "Deadlines can be very helpful," he said, "to get people to make a decision."
What's being done
On Wednesday 48 senators, led by Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, signed a letter asking the Senate leadership to allow a vote on legislation to extend the deadline.
They say that seniors who miss the May 15 deadline will have to wait until the start of 2007 to enter the program, and pay a penalty that would increase each month until coverage begins, resulting in paying 7 percent more for their lifetimes.
Earlier this month the Health and Human Services Department announced that those who qualify for the low-income subsidy, about 2 million people, would be allowed to enroll in plans after the May 15 deadline. But it said the law creating the drug benefit would not allow the administration to extend the deadline for everyone eligible.
Leavitt urged those how haven't signed up to get their prescriptions together, have their Medicare card available, and call (800) Medicare or go online at www.medicare.gov. He said that within 30 minutes, counselors would be able to advise callers on an appropriate plan.
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