Mark your calendar, call your parents and do some homework for the fall signup of a new Medicare prescription drug program, President Bush said yesterday in the first of a series of events aimed at revving up interest in the benefit that becomes effective Jan. 1.
Few details are available on the choices seniors will face when registration begins in November, but the administration hopes that publicizing the drug coverage now will boost enrollment later.
"We're on a massive education effort starting today," Bush said during a rally at the Health and Human Services Department.
For the first time in its 40-year history, the federal Medicare health program will offer prescription drug benefits in 2006. The package is expected to cost taxpayers $500 billion in the first eight years, with most seniors paying an annual deductible of $500, plus a $35 monthly premium and some co-payments.
Of the 42 million elderly and disabled Americans on Medicare, between 28 million and 30 million are expected to sign up for the voluntary drug coverage next year, according to Wall Street projections cited by HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt. He and his team fear it will be especially difficult to enroll seniors who earn too much money to qualify for the free drug benefit but are poor enough to receive steep discounts. This summer, the Social Security Administration is sending letters to several million retirees who may qualify.
Early efforts at marketing a drug discount card and the Social Security mailing suggest the administration faces an arduous task recruiting seniors, even with the $1 billion Congress allocated for implementation and advertising.
"The research we've been doing is that public awareness is very low right now," said Cheryl Matheis, who is overseeing the Medicare outreach campaign for the seniors' lobby AARP.
Bush and Leavitt said they are aware of the challenges and plan to tap several federal agencies and independent groups to help sign up beneficiaries.
The pair travel to Minnesota today to continue the sales pitch.
"You can help by making a call to your mother or father and tell them what's available," Bush said. "You can help by showing an older neighbor how to fill out a form."
Some senior advocates remain skeptical such a complicated program can be sold to older Americans. To purchase drug coverage, seniors will have to choose from an array of private insurance plans, each offering different benefit packages at difference prices.
"The president is right. It will take a nation to enroll people in this benefit," said Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, a nonprofit health care consumer group. "That is because the administration and Congress chose to create the single most complex large-scale benefit program in the history of the United States."
In his appearance before HHS employees and invited guests, Bush held up the Medicare law as a bipartisan beacon in a city of "name-calling" nastiness. "This bill is proof that Americans really aren't interested in seeing one party win and another party lose," he said.
When the legislation was enacted, however, only 11 Democratic senators voted for it and only one House Democrat supported the Bush bill.