updated 7/1/2005 5:26:10 PM ET 2005-07-01T21:26:10

The government on Friday promised more timely hearings for Medicare beneficiaries and providers whose requests for coverage or reimbursement have been rejected.

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But advocates for the elderly expressed concern the new system, which relies on video conferences, will be too impersonal, and that it will be easier to reject appeals over a video monitor than it would be in person.

Medicare appeals have been handled over the years through the Social Security Administration, but that responsibility was transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services on Friday.

“We are committed to making the appeals process better, faster and more convenient for seniors and other people on Medicare,” said HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt. “Our goal is to eliminate the need for an aged or disabled beneficiary to travel if other resources are available closer to home.”

About 9,000 appeals are filed each year. The great majority are filed by hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers. But a lawyer familiar with the appeals process said personal contact often helps administrative law judges evaluate the credibility of a witness.

“I’d rather have a fair hearing than a speedy hearing,” said Brad Plebani, an attorney with the Center for Medicare Advocacy in Connecticut.

The center has won thousands of hearings on behalf of beneficiaries, and the changes to the appeals system will make it harder, not easier, for Medicare beneficiaries to get a fair and fast review, Plebani said.

HHS officials said appeals currently take about 295 days to resolve on average. Under the new system, they are required to be completed within 90 days. Bill Hall, a department spokesman, said officials in four offices will manage the appeals process, but that conferences will take place in about 1,000 locations around the country, including many federal offices.

Anyone who files an appeal can request to appear in person before an administrative law judge.

“If the parties agree it’s the way to go, we’ll make that happen,” Hall said.

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