Medicare Drug Benefit

Confusing Most Seniors

Most older Americans do not understand Medicare's new prescription drug benefit and only one in five intends to sign up, according to survey results released yesterday, less than a week before the start of enrollment.

Twenty percent of seniors will participate, and about twice as many -- 43 percent -- said they are still not sure, according to a poll of elderly people by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Thirty-seven percent said they do not want the new coverage.

Enrollment will begin Tuesday for the voluntary benefit, which will take effect Jan. 1. Many of the 802 people surveyed said they were unsure how the benefit works; 61 percent said they did not understand it "at all" or "very well," and 35 percent understood it "somewhat" or "very" well.

Reducing Errors Saved

Medicare $9.5 Billion

Medicare saved about $9.5 billion this past fiscal year by cutting errors in half, officials said yesterday.

An error occurs when Medicare pays for a medically unnecessary service, a provider submits incorrect billings, or there is insufficient documentation to prove the service was necessary. Providers submit more than 1 billion claims annually to the $325 billion health insurance program. The error rate for the 2004 budget year was estimated at 10.1 percent. The rate for 2005 was estimated at 5.2 percent.

Mark B. McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, credited computer databases and independent reviews of claims. When the agency began calculating error rates, it routinely reviewed 6,000 claims. That has risen to 160,000.

Senators Seek Review

Of Security Letters

A bipartisan group of five senators sent letters yesterday to Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales asking for a review of the use of "national security letters" and declassification of the number issued every year.

The security letters, issued by the FBI without judicial oversight, let investigators demand the customer records of Americans not suspected of crimes as long as the material is related to a terrorism or intelligence probe. The Washington Post reported Sunday that the FBI now issues more than 30,000 such letters each year, a hundredfold increase over past practice.

The letters to Fine and Gonzales were signed by Democrats Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), Russell Feingold (Wis.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.) and Republicans Larry E. Craig (Idaho) and John E. Sununu (N.H.).

-- From News Services