Washington Haggles over Drug Plan Changes

The push is on around the country to get seniors to enroll in the new Medicare drug plan, with just two weeks to go before the May 15 deadline. Congress and the Bush administration are fighting over what kind of changes, if any, need to be made to the program.

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With just two weeks to go before the deadline too enroll, the push is on around the country to get seniors to enroll in the new Medicare drug plan. Meanwhile in Washington there's another kind of push going on. Congress and the Bush administration are fighting over what kind of changes, if any, need to made to the program that's prompted nearly as much confusion as cost savings.

NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

One of the biggest complaints about the new drug program is that after May 15, Medicare beneficiaries won't be able to change drug plans until next year, but those drug plans can change the list of drugs they cover. In other words, a senior who spent days or weeks finding the plan that pays most of the cost of their most expensive medication might find that drug dropped or the price dramatically increased.

This week, however, the Bush administration stepped in to address that problem. Deputy Medicare Administrator Leslie Norwalk first announced the change during an appearance Tuesday on the Diane Rehm show on NPR.

Ms. LESLIE NORWALK (Deputy Administrator, Medicare): We're very concerned if a beneficiary is on a particular drug now, that beneficiary be given the opportunity to continue that drug for the rest of the year.

ROVNER: According to a memo sent to plans Thursday, if a patient is already taking a specific drug, in most cases, the plan has to continue to offer that drug at that price for the rest of the year.

ROVNER: This is the second key change the administration has made to the drug program recently. Last week it decided to extend the May 15 enrollment deadline for those eligible for a special low-income benefit. But Norwalk made it clear the administration isn't budging in its opposition to extending the May 15th deadline for everyone else. She says it's needed to make the program work.

Ms. NORWALK: Because it's an insurance program, beneficiaries who are healthy as well as those who are sick and needs lots of prescriptions, all of them need to participate in the program.

ROVNER: And it takes both a deadline and a penalty for those who sign up late to accomplish that, the administration maintains. But that's not the prevailing view on Capitol Hill, where members are just back from two weeks at home with their constituents.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): We all know about the confusion that's been rampant, and frankly, Medicare beneficiaries have had more fun filling out their tax returns than they did trying figure out what plan to adopt.

ROVNER: That's Montana Democratic Senator Max Baucus. He not only voted for the original Medicare drug bill, he was one of only two Democrats who helped write it. But now, Baucus says he wants to delay the enrollment deadline; and yesterday, he and three other Senate Democrats who supported the program, introduced legislation they say would help simplify it.

Sen. BAUCUS: Seniors need this program to work. It's been too confusing. We intend that this legislation will help simplify an awful lot of the procedures.

ROVNER: So far, the administration and Republican leaders in Congress have successfully tamped down any legislation to alter the controversial drug program. They fear even minor fixes might turn into major changes. But Arkansas Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln, who like Baucus voted for the original program, says the administration is being shortsighted.

Senator BLANCHE LINCOLN (Democrat, Arkansas): Maybe they are trying to save away any kind of legislation, but my suggestion would be embrace those of us that really want to make it better and make it work; and, you know, let's reassure seniors, because that's the key. If you can't reassure seniors that your intentions are good, then you're going to have a real problem with getting them into the programs that they need to be into.

ROVNER: Efforts to pass legislation to push back the deadline could begin as early as next week.

Julie Rovner, NPR News Washington.

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