Video: Medicare patients' emergency

By George Lewis Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/13/2006 7:54:01 PM ET 2006-01-14T00:54:01

Jan Scalia, of Los Angeles, who's disabled with lupus, says she was shocked when her prescription drug coverage ended after she fell through the cracks in the new Medicare program. She has a message for the bureaucrats.

"You cannot tell people to do without because if they die, the blood is on your hands," she says through her tears.

Friday, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sent an urgent letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, saying: "Too many Californians are unable to get the prescription drugs they need to stay alive."

"These are old people," says Schwarzenegger. "These are people who are critically ill. They need their medication."

So far, California and 13 other states have stepped in with emergency programs to cover prescription drug costs until the Medicare mess is ironed out.

What went wrong? On January 1, 6 million people nationwide were switched into the new program. The government says because of the massive changeover, and because of computer glitches, one out of five people got lost in the system.

Across the country, it's created chaos at pharmacy counters, where they're giving away a few pills at a time so customers can get by.

"We're doing things at the counter to get people their medications," says New York City pharmacist Raymond Macioci.

When President Bush signed the new Medicare program into law in December 2003, he hailed it as a major advance. Critics say it's been mishandled so far.

"I'm calling on the Bush administration to re-double, re-triple its efforts to fix these problems immediately," says Sen. Hillary Rodham-Clinton, D-N.Y.

The administration says it's doing just that.

"People should get the prescription drugs they need," says Mark McClellan, with the Centers for Medicare and Medcaid Services. "And we are going to work closely and around the clock and around the country to make sure that happens." 

Jan Scalia says she hopes that's true, because she can't live without the medicines she now cannot pay for.

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