Reprieve on Medicare enrollment penalty gathers steam

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) may back efforts to remove late-enrollment penalties for beneficiaries who failed to sign up for the Medicare prescription-drug benefit by the Monday deadline.

“He is open to offering seniors who didn’t enroll a second chance,” Frist spokeswoman Carolyn Weyforth said.

Seniors had until Monday to enroll. Those who missed the deadline must wait Nov. 15, when enrollment reopens, and they face a 1 percent increase in their monthly premiums for each month late that they sign up. The enrollment period would run until Dec. 31, with drug coverage beginning Jan. 1, 2007, for late seniors, who could face up to a 7 percent increase in premiums.

“For those who did not enroll in time, they’re going to be without coverage for the rest of the year,” Weyforth said. “[Frist] thinks that that’s penalty enough, so he’s going to look at what Grassley and Baucus have offered.”

Yesterday, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) introduced a bill that would create a one-time bypassing of late-enrollment penalties.

“It stands to reason that it takes time for people to learn about benefits available to them,” Grassley said at a press conference unveiling the legislation. “The more participants in Medicare Part D, the better for both the program’s strength and seniors’ quality of life.”

Grassley said that he expected his bill to come to the floor soon and that he hoped for unanimous approval as early as last night.

Weyforth would not confirm action by last night but said Frist “understands that Grassley is asking for quick action on this and will work with the chairman.”

Grassley said costs estimates of the bill are at $1.7 billion, with money coming from a stabilization fund created when the drug benefit was adopted in 2003.

“If it’s going to happen, it’ll happen soon,” Grassley said. “There’s a lot of interest on both sides.”

Eleven other co-sponsors, including several senators in tenuous reelection races, have signed on to the measure. They are Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Thomas Carper (D-Del.), Jim Talent (R-Mo.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Conrad Burns (R-Mont).

“Good policy makes good politics, and I think this is good policy,” Grassley said, when asked if the move to strip penalties temporarily is politically motivated.

However, House Republican leaders have not indicated they will move on the issue. The office of House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) yesterday pointed to a Medicare release touting the drug benefit’s recent enrollment figures.

Meanwhile, House leadership aides have declined to comment on whether they will strike the enrollment penalties.