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Cantwell Fights to Get Seniors Care They Need, Extend Enrollment Deadline for Medicare Drug Program

Location: Washington, DC

Cantwell Fights to Get Seniors Care They Need, Extend Enrollment Deadline for Medicare Drug Program

Senator continues call for legislation allowing federal government to negotiate for best price on prescription drugs

U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) criticized the Senate's failure Thursday to extend the May 15 deadline for seniors to enroll in Medicare's new prescription drug program without facing a late fee. Cantwell also called for legislation giving the federal government the power to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices.

"We need to extend the prescription drug plan deadline now to help America's seniors get the life-saving drugs they need," said Cantwell. "This program is confusing and complicated. Seniors across our state are finding it hard to make an informed decision before the May 15 deadline. Forcing seniors to decide without enough time or adequate information is bad policy. We need to give them more time to decide which plan fits them best without the threat of penalty fees hanging over their heads."

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) introduced an amendment to the pending Fiscal Year 2007 Budget Resolution Thursday to extend the current deadline through the end of 2006, giving seniors more time to decide which plan is right for them. It would also allow seniors to change plans once during the first year of the program without a fee. The amendment, supported by Cantwell, failed narrowly on a 49-49 vote. However, a separate amendment offered by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) allowing the administration to extend the enrollment at its discretion did pass the Senate Wednesday night. This amendment also permits seniors to change plans once during the first year, but would require action by the administration before a deadline extension.

Cantwell also supported an amendment offered Wednesday by Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) to create a reserve fund to capture the savings should the Senate pass legislation allowing the administration to negotiate for prescription drug prices. The amendment also specifies that the administration cannot use this authority to set prices or establish a single list of approved drugs. This amendment passed by a 54-44 vote, and is an important part of the fight to give the federal government the ability to negotiate with drug plans to lower prices.

"If we're going to deliver seniors affordable prices on the medicine they need, the federal government must be able to negotiate with drug plans to get the lowest prices," said Cantwell. "Seniors deserve affordable drugs and we need to make sure we do everything we can to get prices down to a level that doesn't break the budgets of America's seniors."

Following the votes Wednesday, Cantwell said she would fight to give the federal government the ability to negotiate for lower prices and vowed to continue pressing to extend the enrollment deadline. The Medicare Modernization Act, signed into law by the president on December 3, 2003, triggered a new prescription drug plan for Medicare beneficiaries that turned out to be far more complex and confusing than anyone anticipated. Nationwide, there are 53 Medicare prescription drug plans that vary according to costs, medications covered, and pharmacies used. Seniors wishing to receive coverage under the program must decide which plan they wish to join by May 15 or face a penalty fee.

Leading up to the plan's implementation, the administration estimated that 29 million of Medicare's 43 million beneficiaries would sign up. With time running out, only 10 million seniors have enrolled. In a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 66 percent of seniors said that having around 40 drug plans to choose from makes it confusing and difficult to pick the plan that fits them best. In addition, while the government is telling seniors to go online to get help in picking a plan, 72 percent of seniors have never been online, 26 percent of Medicare beneficiaries have cognitive impairments, and 3 million seniors have visual impairments.

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