Administration ready to send first ‘doughnut hole’ checks to seniors

The Obama administration on Thursday announced it is about to mail out the first rebate checks to help seniors on Medicare pay for their prescription drugs. 

The announcement marks the latest example of ongoing efforts to persuade the public, and particularly seniors, of the new healthcare law’s benefits. Seniors disproportionately dislike the new law, and they’re also the group that’s most likely to vote in this year’s midterm elections.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the federal government would start sending out the first $250 rebate checks on June 10 to Medicare beneficiaries caught by the so-called “doughnut hole.” 

The term refers to a gap in coverage for Medicare recipients. About 8 million seniors a year reach the “doughnut hole” threshold where they have to pay the full amount for their medications. 

The new healthcare law closes that gap over time so that seniors only have to pay a fraction of the full cost of their drugs. A little more than 4 million Americans are expected to get rebate checks this year.

The checks are being mailed out earlier than originally called for under the health reform law. Administration officials said 80,000 checks would be sent.

“One of the biggest ways the new law is going to help seniors is by gradually phasing out the Medicare prescription drug doughnut hole, which has made it hard for seniors to afford their medications,” Sebelius said Thursday at a press conference at the department headquarters. 

She added that seniors will not have to apply or sign anything to get the checks since the government is tracking if and when they apply for the rebates.

 Two months after health reform was signed into law, Sebelius said, “it’s clear we’re headed in the right direction.”

 On Wednesday, Sebelius appeared alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) at the Capitol to promote a new four-page brochure outlining the law’s improvements to Medicare. Republicans criticized the brochure as taxpayer-funded propaganda.

“It’s our responsibility to get the word to seniors about what the facts are,” Sebelius said on Wednesday. 

Hoyer added that Democrats want the law’s benefits to be “known and appreciated” by seniors.

Those include closing the doughnut hole, free preventive care and increased efforts to combat fraud and abuse that endanger the program’s solvency.

The brochure praises “needed improvements that will keep Medicare strong and solvent,” adding that “your guaranteed Medicare benefits won’t change — whether you get them through Original Medicare or a Medicare Advantage plan.”

Republicans are having none of it.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blasted the outreach efforts on the Senate floor Tuesday, pointing out that Sebelius had objected to private Medicare Advantage plans using communications to seniors to raise concerns with the health reform law when it was being debated. 

And, he added, the chief actuary for the agency that oversees Medicare has raised concerns that the new law could lead to reduced Medicare Advantage benefits.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R) raised similar objections in a letter he sent Wednesday to Sebelius, a fellow Kansan.

The “mailer is misleading, at best,” Roberts wrote. “At worst, I fear it could represent taxpayer-financed government propaganda.”