Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Democrats press Bush for Medicare reimbursement

Democrats press Bush for Medicare reimbursement
By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic lawmakers pressed the Bush administration on Tuesday to repay tens of millions of dollars to 46 states that stepped in to cover Medicare patient prescription drug costs during setbacks with the program's launch in January.

Some members of Congress in late January introduced legislation to force Medicare officials to pay back the states, but did not press the issue after officials assured them they would refund the money.

"We are disappointed that, to date, no state has actually been reimbursed," nine Democratic members of the House of Representatives said in an April 6 letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt released on Tuesday. Thirteen Democratic senators sent a separate appeal.

The voluntary prescription drug benefit allows seniors to choose from dozens of plans offered by health insurers and other companies. But initial computer troubles left thousands of mostly low-income patients without their medicines.

Republican and Democratic governors in some cash-strapped states stepped in to cover the gap, spending tens of millions of dollars. California alone is due $51 million, the House letter said.

The Democratic lawmakers asked Leavitt when the states could expect a refund.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokeswoman Mary Kahn said the agency hopes to repay by June any state that files a claim by mid-April. The agency has contracted the job to Boston-based Public Consulting Group Inc, which says it can pay a state within 30 days, she added.


Some consumer groups have predicted further complications if more seniors rush to sign up before the May 15 deadline.

But President George W. Bush, speaking in Jefferson City, Missouri, assured seniors that Medicare had fixed the initial technical problems.

"When you put 29 million people right off the bat into a system you're going to have glitches. But they've handled the glitches," Bush said.

His appearance is part of a weeklong campaign by Cabinet members and other administration officials who are fanning out to 25 states to talk about the benefit at hospitals, senior centers, businesses and health facilities.

About 29.5 million of Medicare's 42 million elderly and disabled patients are participating so far, though most were automatically enrolled through other programs.

Democrats see the Medicare drug benefit problem as a vulnerability for Republican congressional candidates in a midterm election year.

Bush, who fought for the legislation that created the drug benefit and campaigned on it in 2004, has acknowledged that some elderly have found the choices confusing, but says the program is a good deal for seniors.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey released on Tuesday confirmed most of the program's plans "vary significantly" in terms of which drugs they cover, how much they cost and various restrictions.

A separate poll released by AARP found 78 percent of seniors who signed up for a plan were satisfied. The nation's largest group representing older Americans campaigned in support of the benefit and promotes a plan with UnitedHealth Group Inc.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria in Jefferson City, Missouri)