Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Many seniors unaware of deadline for Medicare drug plan

Many seniors unaware of deadline for Medicare drug plan
By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Less than three weeks remains for most Medicare beneficiaries to sign up for prescription-drug coverage without penalty, but nearly half the nation's seniors apparently don't know it.

Despite a nationwide campaign by government and private organizations, only 55% of seniors realize the deadline is May 15, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, an independent health care research group. Only 53% know enrolling after the deadline will cost 1% more per month.

The April 6-11 poll of 517 seniors has a margin of error of +/—5 percentage points.

The findings could provide impetus to the push to allow more time for seniors and those with disabilities to pick a prescription-drug plan without paying higher premiums. The Bush administration and Republican congressional leaders have thus far refused to consider an extension.

"It's a finding that I think can't be ignored," says Mollyann Brodie, Kaiser's vice president for public opinion and media research. "You really do have to take a look at the group that maybe hasn't gotten the message yet."

The new drug program was passed by Congress in 2003. A six-month enrollment period began in November, and coverage went into effect Jan. 1. The Bush administration says more than 30 million people now have drug coverage, including 8 million who signed up voluntarily and others who were transferred from Medicaid or were members of managed-care plans.

More than 7 million eligible people remain without coverage, including millions who could qualify for extra financial help because of low income and assets. The Bush administration has exempted them from the deadline if they are found to be eligible for the subsidy after May 15.

For others facing the deadline, "We'll redouble our efforts," says Kathleen Harrington, director of external affairs for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Among the latest efforts are radio ads featuring Bill Cosby.

"The key message there is, 'Act now,' " Harrington says. "We believe that there is real value to having a deadline."

Many in Congress have called on the administration to extend the deadline. Aides to Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said Tuesday that the Kaiser poll could help their cause.

"It strengthens our argument," Snowe spokesman Preston Hartman said. "Extra outreach is definitely in order, and we need more time to do that."

"Too many seniors are ill-informed about the consequences of not signing up," Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said.

Outside Congress, groups that have criticized the prescription-drug program as too complicated also are working to extend the deadline. "It's one thing to play brinksmanship and do everything to get as many people enrolled prior to May 15," says Ron Pollack of Families USA, a liberal health care research and advocacy group. "It's quite another thing to say that seniors will be penalized for the rest of their lives because they didn't sign up and were confused about the consequences."

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