Administration touts numbers enrolled in Medicare drug-benefit

The Bush administration announced yesterday that more than 2.6 million additional Medicare recipients have signed up for the new prescription-drug benefit amid mounting discontent among some lawmakers about the program’s fitful early weeks.

All together, about 24 million people are receiving drug coverage, but nearly all of them are enrolled in parts of the program that do not require them to sign up. About 3.6 million people have voluntarily joined drug plans since the benefit was first implemented in November.

During a conference call with reporters, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said that the enrollment is “exceeding our expectations” of registering 28 million to 30 million in the program by the May 15 deadline.

But many people who previously received drug coverage from Medicaid and were automatically switched to Medicare have been encountering significant problems in getting their prescriptions filled.

Several states, including California, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Massachusetts, have taken emergency measures to ensure these beneficiaries have access to their prescriptions while federal authorities and their private-sector partners resolve problems with the drug benefit’s rollout.

A growing number of members of Congress, including some Republicans, have demanded that Congress revisit the drug-benefit law. Several leading proposals would extend the signup deadline from May to November or December.

The involvement of state governments, already unhappy about having to share the cost of the drug benefit with the federal government, is sure to create significant pressure on Congress at least to pay them back for their stopgap spending.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) took care to express confidence that the Medicare drug program will succeed even as he backed the state Legislature’s move to devote money to helping beneficiaries who fall through the cracks.

But Schwarzenegger also made plain that he will come calling when the bill is due. “We expect the federal government to take full responsibility for the problems with their program,” he said in a radio address Saturday.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), one of the chief authors of the Medicare drug-benefit bill, has staunchly opposed any changes to the program and could be subject to intense lobbying from Sacramento.

Governors who come calling are likely to get warm receptions from some members of their delegations. Already, Rep. Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) has pledged to introduce legislation to reimburse states.