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Cantwell Calls for Enrollment Period Extension for Seniors Medicare Prescription Drug Plan

Location: Seattle, WA

Cantwell Calls for Enrollment Period Extension for Seniors Medicare Prescription Drug Plan

10,000 Seattle Seniors Cry for Help with Muddled Medicare Plan

Sunday at Katterman's Sand Point Professional Pharmacy in Seattle, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) announced her support of legislation to extend the deadline for seniors to enroll in the new Medicare prescription drug program. At present, seniors who sign up for the new drug plan must do so by May 15, 2006. Seniors who register after the deadline will have to pay late penalty fees.

"I'm hearing from seniors across our state about the problems they're having enrolling in the program," said Cantwell. "Despite the administration's claims that the new prescription drug benefit was designed to help seniors, one thing is clear: This program is too confusing and complicated to get our seniors the care they need before the deadline expires. I am working to make sure there is ample time and accurate information for seniors to decide which plan works best for them, without the threat of penalty fees hanging over their heads."

The new program is so confusing that calls from seniors to the State Health Insurance Assistance Program have sky rocketed. Typically, 15 percent of the calls are from seniors looking for assistance with the Medicare coverage. Now over 50 percent of the calls are from seniors requiring help. The Seattle office of Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors (SHIBA) has already reported 10,000 requests for assistance in the last two months.

"Unfortunately, the administration created a program that makes it far too complicated to get Washington seniors enrolled before the deadline," explained Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler. "Our insurance Consumer Hotline is overwhelmed, and or staff and dedicated volunteers are working overtime to help the thousands of seniors with their questions and concerns. Maria Cantwell's leadership is critical to getting us the help that we need here in the state. I thank her for continuing to fight in the Senate to extend the enrollment period so we can make sure our seniors aren't left behind."

Why do seniors need to choose? When the President signed into law the Medicare Modernization Act on December 3, 2003, it triggered a new prescription drug plan for Medicare beneficiaries that turned out to be more complex and confusing than anyone could have imagined.

Nationwide, there are 53 Medicare prescription drug plans that vary according to medications covered, pharmacies used and costs. The deadline for choosing a plan is May 15, 2006. Seniors who fail to sign up for a plan by then will be forced to pay higher monthly premiums for the rest of the time they are in the program.

Why do so many seniors require help? In addition to being very complicated, the Administration relied on the internet and a booklet about 100 pages long to help seniors through the enrollment process. Both of these tools proved to be insufficient.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 76 percent of seniors have never been online. Twenty six percent of Medicare beneficiaries have cognitive impairments, and 3 million seniors have visual impairments.

Assistance programs received additional funding to help educate seniors about the program, but instead of using the funds on resources, King County SHIBA had to use half of the additional $250,000 to create a new workbook for seniors because the Administration's "Medicare and You" handbook was ripe with errors and too lengthy and overwhelming for seniors to use.

These problems are occurring nationwide. In order for the new prescription drug program to work, 20 to 25 million seniors would have to enroll, according to the National Council on Aging. The larger the number of enrollees, the more the insurers will be able to spread risk and keep costs down.

The Administration estimated that 29 million of Medicare's 43 million beneficiaries would sign up for the plan. With time running out, only 10 million seniors have enrolled.

To help seniors avoid paying more, Cantwell wants to give seniors more time to make it through this complicated process. When the senate returns to session next week, Cantwell will co-sponsor the Medicare Informed Choice Act (S. 1841) to extend the enrollment period through all of 2006, and allow Medicare beneficiaries the opportunity to make a one-time change in their prescription drug plan.

For seniors requiring help understanding their options under the Medicare program, they can call the State Health Insurance Assistance Program at 1-800-562-6900. Please know that it could take several days before their call is returned.

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