Katrina May Delay Medicare Drug Changes
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
Hurricane Katrina's ripple effect has reached the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. That benefit is set to start January 1st, but some in Congress want a delay. The Bush administration counters that the new program is more important than ever. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.
JULIE ROVNER reporting:
Early next month, Medicare will mail more than 38 million copies of its annual handbook to its elderly and disabled beneficiaries around the country. Those handbooks will include information on what's expected to be dozens of private prescription drug plans that will be available, and how to sign up. But the hundreds of thousand of hurricane survivors who are also Medicare beneficiaries may well not be receiving mail yet. And even if they do get their handbooks, says Cindy Mann(ph) of the Georgetown Center for Children and Families, many will be in no shape to devote the time and effort necessary to select and sign up for drug coverage.
Ms. CINDY MANN (Georgetown Center for Children and Families): The notion that they'll be able to navigate this new and, you know, by all projections, pretty complicated system to pick a new drug program seems impossible.
ROVNER: Louisiana deputy Medicaid director Ruth Kennedy is even more concerned about roughly 100,000 people in her state who are enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid, the health program for the poor. Those people have been getting their drugs through Medicaid, but they'll be automatically assigned to a new Medicare drug plan starting January 1st. Kennedy's afraid many simply won't be located in time.
Ms. RUTH KENNEDY (Deputy Medicaid Director, Louisiana): And what we're finding is that some people have already had changes in address two or three times since the storm, so our biggest concern is that they know what is happening, that they realize who their prescription drug plan is. And because the plans are specific within the state, if they are not in the state, then that will be an issue.
ROVNER: Democrats in Congress, most of whom voted against having Medicare's drug coverage delivered by private plans, have introduced bills in the House and Senate to delay the rollout for those who get both Medicare and Medicaid and to give other beneficiaries extra time to enroll. Their bills would include not only the three states directly hit by the storm, but the four surrounding states that have taken in most of the evacuees, including Texas and Florida. The bills would give beneficiaries an additional year to sign up for a drug plan, and it would temporarily leave unchanged the drug coverage for people enrolled in both programs.
But the Bush administration is dead-set against any delay. Medicare and Medicaid administrator Mark McClellan says the dislocation makes implementing the new Medicare drug benefit on time more important than ever.
Mr. MARK McCLELLAN (Administrator, Medicare and Medicaid): Medicaid coverage in the state of Louisiana is not going to do much good for people from Louisiana who are now in other parts of the country, and Medicare drug coverage, which is available nationally, will be a comprehensive benefit to help make sure all of those people can meet their prescription drug needs.
ROVNER: McClellan also says that many of the same volunteers who are helping evacuees sign up for other government benefits can help Medicare beneficiaries enroll in a drug plan, too. Critics say those volunteers are already overwhelmed with other tasks.
Meanwhile, some conservative Republicans in Congress are also calling for a delay in the drug benefit nationwide as a way to help pay for all the hurricane relief. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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