Officials scale back Rx-benefit outreach

With the next sign-up period for the Medicare Part D prescription-drug benefit just weeks away, beneficiaries will not see an outreach campaign of the same scale as the effort employed by the Bush administration and the private sector during the program’s inaugural year.

The onslaught of paid advertising, national news coverage and public events featuring President Bush and senior administration officials is not going to be repeated during this go around, according to federal Medicare representatives.

In addition, the broad coalition that bolstered the government’s efforts to promote Part D does not plan to spend nearly as much on advertising and public relations this year.

Rather than introducing a brand-new benefit to Medicare’s 43 million beneficiaries, the administration, healthcare groups and senior-citizens’ groups such as the AARP will be applying more focused strategies, particularly targeting low-income beneficiaries who haven’t signed up.

The poorest beneficiaries are eligible for comprehensive and practically free drug coverage but proved the hardest to sign up for 2006.

Administration officials insist that they have learned the right lessons from the first year. Yet critics caution that glitches might resurface.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) says it has enhanced the information that will be available to beneficiaries online and through its toll-free hotline.

The federal government’s outreach program “will be very broad and very deep,” said Kathleen Harrington, the director of CMS’s Office of External Affairs. Springboarding off of last year’s major campaign “will certainly give us an opportunity” to use a more targeted approach, she said.

The enrollment period begins Nov. 15 and lasts six weeks, compared to the six months Medicare beneficiaries had to sign up for the first year of the program. Those who want to keep the plans they already have do not have to take any action.

The administration says that it will utilize the infrastructure that it established last year, which combined the government’s resources with those of state authorities, senior-citizens’ groups, pharmacists, physicians and others who regularly interact with older people.

CMS’s budget for Part D outreach is about one-sixth of what it had to spend for the 2006 sign-up period, Harrington said. The agency does not plan to air any ads on national television, though it will buy print ads and will use radio spots to reach Hispanic and African-American audiences.

Like CMS, the Medicare Rx Education Network also plans to scale back its activities, spokespeople said. The group is a diverse coalition backed by the drug industry, physicians, disease-advocacy groups and organizations like the AARP.

“Our effort is clearly not as large as it was previously,” said John Jonas, the senior partner at Patton Boggs who heads the firm’s healthcare group and represents the network. Because the program has been in existence for a year already, outreach for 2007 “doesn’t require the same effort,” he said. Moreover, he said, there was “a lot of dollars last year [that are] not available now.”

“It’s less of ‘Medicare Part D 101,’” observed Eugenia Edwards, a senior public policy specialist at Patton Boggs.

Jonas and Edwards emphasized that the network would concentrate its resources on the low-income population. “It’s really important to find these people,” Edwards said.

The AARP says it is poised to make an aggressive push to reach out to low-income beneficiaries. “We’re redoubling our efforts to reach those who need this the most,” said Mark Kitchens, AARP’s director of media relations.

The group does not currently plan to run national television ads but will buy space in community newspapers in cities with high numbers of low-income Medicare beneficiaries, such as Miami, Houston and Chicago. The AARP also will publicize the enrollment period in its own magazine, which the group boasts has the highest circulation of any publication in the world.

AARP state offices will assist people in their communities, and the group has a telephone hotline, Kitchens added.

One organization that has consistently criticized the structure of the drug benefit and the administration’s handling of its implementation believes that beneficiaries are still going to need a lot of help, a spokeswoman said.

Although the administration has a year of experience under its belt, the problems that surfaced last year should make beneficiaries cautious as they approach the program, said Maria Freese, director of government relations and policy at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Freese said that the biggest cause for concern is that CMS had difficulties last year providing accurate information about the drug plan options.

The “Medicare & You” handbook sent out last year contained errors, the CMS website used to compare drug plans was not always accurate, and the Government Accountability Office faulted CMS for the performance of its call center. The administration said at the time that all of those problems had been addressed.

Seniors need the best possible information to determine whether they are already in the most appropriate plan or to choose a plan for the first time. Last year’s glitches “undermine[d] confidence in the system,” Freese said. As for this year, she added, “You won’t know until you get part way through the year and find out” whether the right choices were made.