Attention Speaker Pelosi ...
WASHINGTON â€“ At first, Ruth Goundry wasn't sure about participating in the new Medicare drug benefit. It was too confusing, she said. But in the end, she gave it a try. She's glad she did.
As the program's first year draws to a close, Goundry estimates that she saved about $150 a month on her five medicines, compared with what she was spending before Medicare Part D began. â€œI would say I'm very impressed with the whole thing. I have no complaints,â€ said Goundry, a resident of Chesapeake Beach, Md. â€œIt's meant a tremendous savings. I know other people who are saved by it. I mean that. They don't hardly pay anything.â€
Goundry is like millions of seniors who say they are happy with the benefit, which cost the federal government about $30 billion in 2006. But the program affects seniors and the disabled differently, depending upon their income and health. There are many people who believe the program could be improved.
Just down the street, at the Chesapeake Care Pharmacy, Wesley Copeland is not so impressed. In August, he began picking up all the cost of his medicine â€“ about $300 a month. Plus, he had to continue paying his monthly premium of $38. That gap in coverage is called the doughnut hole. â€œWe've got a lot of people in my neighborhood who are seniors like me on retirement. We have to stretch pennies, so when it gets to that doughnut hole, we have to scramble like hell to keep going,â€ Copeland said.
Goundry and Copeland represent the millions of stories surrounding the addition of a drug benefit to Medicare this past year. The drug coverage has often been described as the biggest change in Medicare in the program' 40 years. Under the program, seniors and the disabled enroll in a private plan. They pay a monthly premium to the plan. The government also pays the plan.
The Bush administration estimates that the coverage saves the average beneficiary about $1,200. But many in Washington, particularly Democratic lawmakers, say the savings could be greater if the government were allowed to negotiate with drug manufacturers concerning the cost of medicine rather than leaving that chore to the plans.
Overall, about 22.5 million people enrolled in private plans during the programs first year. Nearly 7 million more people get their medicine through their employer, and those employers get a tax credit for providing that coverage. That total of nearly 30 million getting coverage through Part D is much less than was originally projected. However, analysts also didn't realize that so many seniors had insurance coverage for their medicine through other programs.
The Bush administration acknowledges the program got off to a rough start as hundreds of thousands of people showed up in pharmacy computers as not being enrolled in a plan. Beverly Dillon, a pharmacy technician in Chesapeake Beach, said that in the program's early weeks, her store advanced about 75 to 100 patients medicine to help them get by. â€œWe would not let patients go without their medication,â€ she said.
The state of Maryland also stepped in to pick up the cost of medicine for poor beneficiaries, she noted. Most other states did as well. â€œJanuary and February were absolutely crazy,â€ she said. â€œI would say that around March, or late February, things started to calm down.â€ She said many seniors are still confused about the program. To prove her point, a customer came into the store to get a refill. Dillon noted that she was in a Part D plan, but the customer was insistent that she was not and that she had coverage through another program. Dillon relented, not wanting to upset her.
Dillon said most customers who did not have insurance coverage prior to the past year are saving money. She has noticed that the checks they write to the pharmacy now are much smaller. â€œThere's definitely a significant savings,â€ she said. â€œ(But) the program just got off to such a bad start in the beginning, it just has not been smooth.â€
Dillon is bracing for some rough spots in the coming weeks too. That's because some seniors are switching plans. Others have been automatically enrolled in new plans. Herb Kuhn, deputy administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said that he believes the federal government learned many lessons from the past year that will make this year's startup run more smoothly. â€œWe have a much more sophisticated and built up infrastructure from a year ago,â€ Kuhn said.
Kuhn said his biggest concern going into the new year are those beneficiaries who waited until the final days of the open-enrollment period to change drug plans. He said seniors should bring to the pharmacy any kind of identification or acknowledgment letter from their plan that would show proof of membership.
Overall, Kuhn said that 2006 was a good year for beneficiaries. â€œWe believe it's been a very positive year for Part D,â€ he said. â€œAs a result of the new program, beneficiaries are living better. They're saving money.â€