Administration must better prepare people to access prescription drug benefit program, HHS official says

Wednesday, November 2nd 2005, 3:19 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Millions of senior citizens and the disabled will likely need help enrolling for Medicare's coming prescription drug benefit, Health and Human Services' inspector general said Wednesday.

Investigators surveyed beneficiaries who, during the past year, registered for cards that offered discounts on prescription drugs worth an average 10 to 25 percent. The cards were supposed to give people some relief on the price of their medicines before a more comprehensive benefit kicks in on Jan. 1.

``Over one-third of enrolled beneficiaries needed help enrolling in a drug card, and drug plan enrollment will likely be more complicated,'' the report said.

The inspector general said the federal government should expand its efforts to reach potential beneficiaries beyond what it did for the discount card. It said most beneficiaries knew of the discount card program and where to go for information, such as 1-800-Medicare, or the official Medicare Web site. However, only a fifth of beneficiaries contacted a source on their own.

Rather, beneficiaries primarily relied on direct mail and the news media for information about the cards.

Enrollment for the new benefit begins Monday and continues through May 15. Already insurers have been marketing their plans.

Gary Karr, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the agency realizes many senior citizens and the disabled need personalized help.

For the most vulnerable, some 6.5 million people will be automatically enrolled in a drug plan, he said. In an effort to reach about 35 million other beneficiaries, the government is working with thousands of organizations around the country.

``People can go to senior centers, people can call a local number, or go to a local event to get the help they need,'' Karr said. ``Because it is clear that some will need expert assistance. We just can't rely on press releases out of Washington to do it.''

Karr said Congress provided $300 million for the outreach effort.