Congressman Doyle Calls for Extending Medicare Deadline; NEW GAO REPORT FINDS WIDESPREAD PROBLEMS WITH INFORMATION PROVIDED ABOUT NEW MEDICARE DRUG BENEFIT

May 8, 2006
Press Release

Washington, DC – U.S. Representative Mike Doyle (PA-14) today called for extending the May 15 deadline for signing up for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, citing a new government report that indicated widespread confusion among seniors about the new program.

“Millions of senior citizens still aren’t getting the information they need to make a decision about what option would be best for them under the new Medicare prescription drug benefit,” Congressman Doyle said.  “This new report provides ample evidence of what I’ve been saying for months now – namely, that the Bush Administration designed an inadequate and overly complex program, bobbled the roll-out of the new benefit, and now refuses to make things right for seniors by extending the deadline by which they have to sign up for the program if they don’t want to pay higher significantly higher premiums for the rest of their lives.”

Since January 1, 2006, Medicare has been offering its beneficiaries prescription drug coverage (known as Medicare Part D) through new private drug plans and through Medicare managed care plans (now called “Medicare Advantage” plans).  This program is voluntary, so no one is required to sign up for it - but the premiums will cost substantially more for people who don’t sign up soon.  The law imposes a 1 percent surcharge on premiums for every month’s delay in signing up after the May 15, 2006, deadline.

The program has been plagued with errors and delays.  Last October, for example, just before seniors started signing up for the new benefit, The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services sent “Medicare and You” handbooks containing inaccurate and misleading information about the new Medicare prescription drug benefit to millions of senior citizens.  Many seniors have complained about the complexity of the new program.

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week concluded that the information provided by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services about the complicated new drug benefit is rife with problems.  According to GAO, the federal handbooks, website, and 1-800 Medicare hotline failed to provide information that was “consistently clear, complete, accurate, and usable.”

Specifically, GAO found:

  • Written materials failed to comply with basic guidelines for good communications and were written at an educational level that rendered them unreadable for half of all seniors.
  • The Medicare website was poorly designed and was so complicated that seniors were typically able to perform less than half of all the simple tasks they attempted on the site.
  • The 1-800-Medicare hotline provided inaccurate, incomplete, or inappropriate responses to one-third of basic questions. 
  • On one key question — which plan offered the lowest costs for individuals who take a given set of drugs — the Medicare hotline provided inappropriate, inaccurate, or incomplete answers almost 60 percent of the time.

On Monday, the Medicare trustees released their latest projections, finding that enrollment for the drug benefit was well below expectations, with one-third of seniors without coverage expected to forego the benefit.  The confusing nature of the benefit — and the inability of seniors to obtain accurate and understandable information about it — is blamed by many experts for the low enrollment.

“Seniors can’t make good choices if they can’t get good information, and many of them are struggling hard to make ends meet on fixed incomes,” Congressman Doyle observed.  “The premium surcharge that’s going to kick in after May 15 could hit many of those senior citizens hard.”

“The whole point of creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit was to take some of the burden of ever more expensive prescription drugs off their backs,”Congressman Doyle added.  “That’s why I’ve cosponsored legislation that would extend the May 15 deadline until December 31st, giving seniors another couple of months to sort out their options and make a choice that best meets their needs.”

This legislation, the Medicare Informed Choice Act (H.R. 3861), would extend the Medicare Part D enrollment period through the end of this year and allow one enrollees to change plans once this year as well.

For GAO’s report and the fact sheet, please visit www.democrats.reform.house.gov.

 

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