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As Deadline Looms, Cantwell Renews Call for Extension of Medicare Drug Plan Enrollment Period

Location: Washington, DC

As Deadline Looms, Cantwell Renews Call for Extension of Medicare Drug Plan Enrollment Period

Bipartisan coalition pushes to move May 15 deadline to end of year to give seniors more time to navigate muddled, complex program

U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined a bipartisan coalition of senators calling for an extension of the new Medicare prescription drug program's enrollment deadline through the end of the year. Currently, seniors who sign up for the program after May 15, 2006 will face penalty fees.

"With pharmacists overwhelmed and seniors still struggling to navigate this complex program less than a month before the enrollment deadline, we need to give them more time and better information if this program is going to live up to its promise," said Cantwell. "We need to push the deadline back so seniors can decide which plan works best for them without the threat of penalty fees hanging over their heads."

In a letter sent this week to Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), Cantwell and 47 other senators called on Frist to bring legislation extending the deadline to the Senate floor.

"Medicare beneficiaries face a number of prescription drug plan options, and choosing the right plan can be a challenge," the senators wrote. "Each option differs in terms of premiums, cost-sharing requirements, drug coverage and pharmacy access. Sorting through these plans has proven to be difficult and time consuming. Further complicating matters, the Medicare drug program is experiencing a variety of implementation problems that have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable beneficiaries."

Nationwide, there are 53 Medicare prescription drug plans that vary according to medications covered, pharmacies used, and costs. The new program, triggered by the Medicare Modernization Act and signed into law on December 3, 2003, is so confusing that calls from seniors to programs that help them navigate insurance options have skyrocketed to unprecedented levels. Late last year, the Washington State Health Insurance Assistance Program was reporting over 5,000 requests for assistance each month. The administration relied initially on the internet and a 100-page booklet to help seniors through the enrollment process. Both of these tools proved insufficient.

After meeting with pharmacists across Washington state this winter, Cantwell championed the Medicare Informed Choice Act, which would extend the enrollment period through the end of 2006 and allow Medicare beneficiaries the opportunity to make a one-time change in their prescription drug plan. Now, Cantwell and a bipartisan coalition of her colleagues are calling on the Senate to take up and pass this or similar legislation without delay to give seniors more time to make the decision that fits them best.

To help understand their options under the Medicare program, seniors can call the State Health Insurance Assistance Program at 1-800-562-6900, though it may take several days for calls to be returned.

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