U.S. senators talk Medicare
Thursday, April 27, 2006
BY ALAN SCHMIDT
U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Dick Durbin visited a group of seniors as part of a sweep through the state to urge people to sign up for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.
The deadline for signing up for Medicare Part D is May 15, less than three weeks away. Durbin told roughly 200 people gathered April 21 at the aptly named Senate Apartments, at North Park Village, 5801 N. Pulaski Road, that even though he and Obama were working to extend that deadline, anyone who is eligible should enroll right away.
Those who are eligible but who don't sign up by the deadline are not only going to pay a higher premium when they sign up, but might also be locked into that higher premium for life.
Durbin said there are between 600,000 and 800,000 people in the state who have not yet signed up, a figure that includes about 32,000 people in the 9th Congressional District.
Obama observed that people mostly haven't enrolled in the program because they are so confused by all of the options -- there are 42 plans to choose from in Illinois alone. Each of the plans available has its own rate for monthly premiums and its own list of covered prescription medicines. There are also variations in the out-of-pocket cost of the same drugs.
Obama said one of his biggest complaints about the legislation that established the Medicare drug benefit was that, "Despite the efforts of people like Dick Durbin and many of my other colleagues, the bill ended up being a major giveaway to drug companies and insurance companies."
Charging that some aspects of the law don't make sense, Obama said, "Probably the thing that was most galling to me was that the program administrators can't negotiate with drug companies to get the best price for their drugs. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the military can do that. For some reason, our federal government, on behalf of the seniors, can't do the same thing."
If the government were able to negotiate prices with drug companies, it might leave more money to cover the cost of prescription drugs and help shrink the "doughnut hole" -- the gap in coverage in which the consumer bears the full cost of medication, Obama said.
Durbin pointed out that in Canada the government's negotiations with prescription drug companies have lowered costs. He said Medicare Part D is also unpredictable because the companies that are behind each of the drug plans can remove medicines from their "formulary" list, or add others, and can increase the co-pay without warning. A program that originally looked like a good deal for someone could later become very expensive.
Once people choose a plan they cannot switch for a year.
"We could do better and I think that you deserve better," Durbin said. "We owe it to you to make sure that you have a reasonable plan that provides drugs that are affordable."
Under a bill proposed by Durbin, people would be able to switch plans if the one they belong to raises the out-of-pocket costs too high or stops offering the prescription drugs they need.
A woman in the audience -- who said her prescription drugs are covered through her employee pension plan -- asked if she would be penalized if one day her pension benefits were discontinued. She was instructed to get certification from Medicare that her current coverage "is creditable," so that if she lost her coverage in the future, she could sign up for Part D without getting hit with the late-signer penalty.
When Durbin asked the group how many people had not yet signed up, about four people in the group of about 200 raised their hands.
In an interview after the forum, Durbin said he was encouraged to find "a good, strong community" where so many people had already signed up.
"At the Senate Apartments there are quite a lot of well educated seniors, people who are healthy," Obama said. "I think if you go to senior centers where people are either sicker or have a lower educational level -- generally are poorer -- they might have more difficulty negotiating the system. We have to let folks know that if the process of signing up is overwhelming them, help is available to ensure that they are being enrolled."
Obama and Durbin appeared at the invitation of state Rep. John D'Amico, D-15th, and Chicago Alderman Margaret Laurino, D-39th. D'Amico said he and Laurino had been in touch with both senators' offices, trying to get them to talk about the Medicare drug benefit, because there had been so much confusion with the program.
"Not only is it an honor to get one senator here," D'Amico remarked, "but we got both of them here."