Some Seniors Miss Drug Benefit

Despite a federal effort a Medicare drug benefit is not familiar to lots of low-income senior citizens.

A $400 million campaign by the Bush administration to enroll poor seniors in prescription drug plans costing a few dollars per prescription has signed up 1.4 million people, a fraction of the eight million eligible for the new coverage, according to a recent article.

At this rate, by some calculations the government will spend about $250 for each person it enrolls and even then it would have only two million poor seniors taking advantage of what is perhaps the most generous government benefit available today, according to Ceci Connolly, who covers the Washington area.

“It’s a very, very good benefit,” said Deane Beebe, whose organization, the Medicare Rights Center, has criticized many aspects of the new Medicare drug program, called Part D.

When Congress enacted the first-ever drug plan for Medicare’s 42 million beneficiaries it created a tiered system in which the poorest and sickest seniors pay the least, said Connolly.

The group sandwiched in between – those earning too much for Medicaid but less than $19,000 – qualify for coverage with no premiums, no deductibles and co-payments less than five dollars, according to Beebe.

But as in earlier efforts to register low-income Americans in programs such as food stamps or children’s health insurance (CHIPS) officials have encountered myriad challenges, according to research.

An Albertsons pharmacist has been flooded with calls since January from prescription customers confused about their new benefit.

“It’s a mess,” he said. “They (officials) are also taking some drugs off the market and that makes no sense.”

Across the nation, the administration has turned to hundreds of community groups to help sign people up, says records.

“I have more trouble signing people up for the extra help,” outreach worker Mirian Barrios said.

The task has been so daunting for the Social Security Administration that one high-ranking official wrote a desperate email this month describing overwhelmed phone lines, heavy backlogs, and field office visits that jumped from 140,000 people a day in the fall to 200,000 in January, according to staff.

For the transition to the new program the agency bought computer systems, hired 2,500 employees, participated in 65,000 informational meetings, and sent at least one letter to each of 19 million retirees who might qualify for the subsidized coverage.

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