Correction to This Article
An Oct. 10 Federal Page article incorrectly reported that anyone eligible for Medicare prescription drug coverage who does not sign up for the new benefit by May 15 will have to pay higher-than-normal premiums if they join later. Eligible participants who currently have drug coverage at least as good as that provided under the new Medicare benefit will not have to pay a penalty if they later switch to the Medicare coverage.

Medicare Drug Benefit Outlined in Campaign

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 10, 2005

Medicare soon will help seniors pay for prescription drugs. That, however, is all that many Americans know -- even among the 41 million people already enrolled in the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.

They need to learn quickly -- and the government plans to spend $300 million over three years teaching them.

Enrollment for the new benefit begins Nov. 15. Anyone eligible who does not sign up by May 15 will be forced to pay higher-than-normal premiums when eventually joining, officials say.

"Seniors want to hear about this over and over again," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said. "Because to them it is a very significant change in their life. . . . This isn't about the fact that it's available. What they want to know is: 'Will this drug be covered?' 'How much is it going to cost me?' 'How does it affect my situation?' "

Medicare officials say the education campaign will be comprehensive, with an emphasis on grass-roots outreach by local nonprofit partners. The agency is relying on about 10,000 local groups to provide education and materials to seniors at church gatherings, nursing homes, Meals on Wheels visits and meetings of civic organizations.

Beginning Thursday, more than 9,000 Medicare operators will field calls at 800-633-4227. The agency will have plan information at . It is deputizing and training federal workers -- in local offices of the departments of Labor, Agriculture, and Housing and Urban Development -- to provide information and enrollment assistance to the people they serve. On Nov. 19, CNBC will air a town-hall-style meeting on the new benefit, federal officials said.

Kathleen Harrington, a manager overseeing the education campaign for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said: "Our commitment here at CMS is to make sure that people with Medicare who want to get personalized counseling, personalized assistance will have the resources to do it. We are really trying every technique we can. . . . Our motto is we're going to reach the people with Medicare where they live, where they work, where they play and where they pray."

Part of that will take the form of a traditional advertising campaign. Spots will be on radio and television, and in specialty magazines and in local newspapers, Harrington said. The agency has run one national television ad and will air another this month. The government expects to spend about $7.5 million on TV advertising alone by Thanksgiving, she said.

The ad campaign is being managed by the public relations firm Ketchum Inc. under a $25 million contract; the company has collected about $2 million in fees.

Ketchum produced a controversial series of prepackaged news stories for HHS last year that touted the drug benefit and featured actors posing as journalists. The ads, which aired on at least 40 television stations, violated a federal propaganda ban because they did not inform viewers that they came from the government, the Government Accountability Office found.

HHS officials say Ketchum got the new work because it already had a multiyear contract to provide public relations services for the department. The firm promised the new ads will not cross the legal line.

Surveys show that seniors trust Medicare information more if they see it is from the government, Harrington said, "so it's in the interest of our success to do this and to label everything appropriately."

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