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Medicare drug cards have few takers

/ Source: The Associated Press

As Tuesday’s starting date approaches for the Medicare drug discount program, the number of older Americans enrolling for the new benefit has been disappointing, according to some card sponsors.

While most of the more than 70 sponsors are silent about how many people they’ve signed up, AARP admits its number is minuscule. The group, which has 35 million 50-and-older members, mailed out 26,000 enrollment kits and has signed up only 400 people, spokeswoman Carol Shirley said.

At Walgreen Co., spokesman Michael Polzin said, “We prepared for a crush of seniors to come in beginning in May. That hasn’t happened.”

The Bush administration projected that 7.3 million Medicare recipients would sign up for the cards, which can be used beginning June 1. That number includes 4.7 million with incomes low enough to receive $600 from the federal government this year and again in 2005 to pay pharmacy bills.

Rollout 'has been a bit rocky'

If enrollment to date is lower than expected, it can be attributed partly to advice from Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and others to window-shop before choosing a card. On Thursday, Thompson said: “Now is the time to sign up.”

AARP’s Shirley said the rollout of the drug card program also “has been a bit rocky.” Problems have included swamped phone lines at the Medicare hot line, which Thompson and others consider evidence of high interest in the program, and discrepancies between prices posted on the Medicare Web site and what the card sponsors say they are charging for some medicines.

Ruth Nadel, a member of the advisory Commission on Aging in Washington, stood up at Thompson’s news conference to complain that the Web site is difficult to use, a point reinforced by analysts at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

“The site’s flaws make picking the right card a cumbersome task,” Forrester’s Elizabeth Boehm said.

In addition, some advocacy groups and Democratic critics of the new Medicare prescription drug law have challenged the discounts available with the cards. Bush administration officials say brand-name drugs can be had for up to 18 percent less than the retail price, on average. Two reports this week said drug price inflation in recent years exceeds the discounts.

$4.6 million to help sign up beneficiaries

Nevertheless, Thompson and Mark McClellan, the top Medicare official, said glitches have largely been eliminated, and they remain on track to reach their enrollment projections.

This week, they announced that the administration is making available $4.6 million to help sign up low-income Medicare beneficiaries who qualify for the annual $600 in government aid.

“Low-income seniors cannot afford to pass those savings up,” Thompson said.

Community and civic groups in the 30 largest metropolitan areas will get $2.4 million, while the rest of the money will target rural and non-English-speaking Medicare recipients, as well as American Indians.

The influx of money is not evidence of disappointing enrollment, McClellan said. “It’s a recognition that we have to do some real work to get low-income beneficiaries to sign up,” he said.

The administration is working with a collection of several dozen organizations that have an even more ambitious goal: 5.5 million low-income card holders by next year, said James Firman, the coalition’s leader and president of the National Council on Aging.

Administration likely to expand eligibility

Firman also said he expects the administration will agree, after months of internal debate, to expand the number of people eligible for automatic enrollment in a drug card, or around 700,000 low-income Americans.

Anyone who signs up from this point forward, however, will not be able to use the drug card before July. Approval of card applications is taking around two weeks, HHS spokesman Michael Reilly said. Medicare is trying to trim the turnaround to three days, Reilly said, but anyone issued a card within a month has to wait until the first of the next month before than can use it.

Even states that are automatically enrolling low-income people who already participate in state drug assistance plans are encountering delays.

Pennsylvania is awaiting approval to issue cards to the 111,000 people it has signed up, said Brian Elms, spokesman for the state Department of Aging.

The Medicare hot line (1-800-633-4227) has received 3.5 million calls since enrollment opened May 3. The Web site has seen a similar number of visitors, Medicare said.

McClellan said the hot line now has 3,000 operators to take calls. However, Scott Reynolds, an executive with the company running the call centers, said this week that 1,600 people are taking calls, with 400 more being hired and trained.

Reynolds’ company, NCS Pearson, is running call centers in Arizona, Iowa and Kansas under a contract with the government and has hired other companies to operate at least two more centers.