Drug plan even confuses Medicare, Reid says

A mistake in a handbook shipped to all Medicare beneficiaries to help them choose among prescription-drug insurance plans has given Democrats new ammunition to charge that the GOP-crafted Medicare drug benefit is too confusing for older Americans to understand.

The error could have a direct negative impact on the poorest Medicare beneficiaries. The handbook, called “Medicare & You” and sent out every year, mistakenly tells beneficiaries that if their incomes are low enough to qualify for an extra subsidy for their medication costs every drug plan is available to them with no monthly premium. In fact, only some of those plans do not charge a premium.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) circulated a memo on the Hill on Tuesday explaining the error and outlining how it plans to make sure that beneficiaries do not select the wrong prescription-drug plan.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was not satisfied with CMS’s assurances that Medicare beneficiaries would not be befuddled by the bad information. Reid took advantage of the agency’s foul-up to criticize the drug benefit, which is provided by numerous private companies from which beneficiaries will choose, as needlessly complex.

“The administration has created a drug benefit that is so confusing, even the people running Medicare can’t get it right,” Reid said.

This marks the second time this year Democrats have seized on the administration’s mishandling of the Medicare handbook to lambaste the drug benefit. An early draft that was circulated led to charges that the administration was making a complicated benefit even harder to understand. CMS subsequently revised the handbook.

Beneficiaries will begin to receive their handbooks by the end of this week. Health plans began their marketing campaigns Saturday, and people can begin signing up for drug plans Nov. 15.

The CMS memo, penned by Director of Legislation Linda Fishman, says that the agency will rely on insurance companies to tell beneficiaries how to sign up for plans that do not charge premiums and correct information via the toll-free Medicare hotline and the Medicare website. The agency will not mail a corrected page to beneficiaries, spokesman Gary Karr said.

Unlike Reid, AARP says it is not overly worried about the impact of the error and is satisfied with the steps that the CMS is taking. “They’re doing what they can,” an AARP spokesman said. The group, which endorsed the 2003 Medicare bill, will help spread the word, he added.

Congressional Democrats have stayed on message in their argument that the drug benefit is a giveaway to drug and insurance companies, and the main legislative remedy they have offered has been narrowly focused. Bills in the House and Senate would extend the time period in which Medicare beneficiaries can sign up for a drug plan without facing a late-enrollment penalty.

The erroneous information in the handbook highlights the need to give seniors and the disabled more time, Reid said.

“This mistake underscores the need for legislation to delay the application of the late-enrollment penalty. … If the folks at Medicare can’t get it right on the first try, seniors deserve extra time to make the right choices,” he said.

Democrats bitterly opposed the bill that created the drug benefit in 2003 and favor using the government directly to administer the new coverage. They have consistently charged that the benefit is complicated, that seniors and the disabled on Medicare will not sign up, and that the real reason for using the private sector to run the benefit is to pay back health insurers and drug makers for their support of the Republican Party.

“Given these skewed priorities, it’s no wonder that the people at Medicare got confused,” Reid remarked.

In recent months, however, the administration has trumpeted a series of seemingly positive developments as it prepares to launch the benefit in January. Some of the skeptics’ biggest fears might be put to rest by the news that premiums will be lower than predicted, that health plans have signed on to offer the benefit at a rate few expected, and that opinion surveys seem to show that seniors gradually are warming up to the program and may be letting go of the serious worries they had a few years ago.

The success of the drug benefit is of massive importance to the administration. President Bush recently toured the country with other health-agency officials to promote the benefit, and the leaders of the CMS and the Department of Health and Human Services have been focused on meeting the deadlines set by the Medicare law and rolling out educational campaigns with insurers, state and local agencies, and private groups.

Asked about Reid’s concerns about beneficiaries’ not comprehending the drug benefit, Karr said, “We would welcome Senator Reid’s assistance in that effort.” Many congressional Democrats and outside groups have cooperated with the educational campaigns being waged in their districts and states while continuing to call for changes to the law.