HHS SECRETARY IN TAMPA AS PRESCRIPTION DRUG PLAN ENROLLMENT DEADLINE LOOMS-Andrew Stelzer

05/08/06

With only one week to go before the enrollment deadline for the new Medicare part D prescription drug plan. The Bush administration is focusing on the capital of Americas Medicare recipients—senior citizens living in Florida. Today, health and Human Services Secretary was in Tampa promoting the plan, even as seniors say its confusing and citizen advocates say it’s a poorly constructed giveaway to the pharmaceutical companies. WMNFs Andrew Stelzer has the story.

SOUND OF MEDICARE HALL…MOSTLY SPANISH

About 50 seniors citizens crowded into a classroom at the Incarnation Catholic Church on West Hillsborough Avenue, trying to get help figuring out which of the dozens of available plans would save them the most money.

ACT- George “majorly overly complicated, especially for seniors, holes in the middle, different schemes are used to pay for drugs seems to me the average seniors is gonna have trouble with that I can attest from explaining to my mother..�

George Andrews and his wife Gene said they have already signed up for a plan, but they don’t know if it’s the best one.

ACT-gene Andrews “Its confusing at some points…I really don’t understand all of it…I’m signed up for medicine only, and I want info about other plans…books, its confusing..�

ACT-George Andrews Were both signed up for a plan, we thought this was gonna be info, we won't get it..we signed up for Humama, 20 dollars�

ACT- George “From what I use, its gonna cost me just to save the penalty. I know I wont save anything..I take generic drugs and just don’t want to get kicked with 12 percent a year�

Phil Compton with the Florida consumer Action Network, held a press conference this morning, where he was highly critical of the Medicare enrollment period, which began on November 15th.

ACT-Compton “The roll out has been incomplete, inaccurate…GAO is evaluator, and they find CMS to be lacking in rolling out program..communications were unreadable..seniors couldn’t perform the tasks�

ACT-Compton “When asked the simple question, which plan is lowest cost for me…they usually couldn’t, info not provided in useable manner..�

The confusion was made even worse in town and country, when more than 90 percent of the people who showed up spoke Spanish as their primary language, and very few of the Medicare representatives spoke any Spanish. One Medicare representative circulating promised that instead of waiting, anyone who spoke English could giver them her number, and she would call them within two hours and help them choose a plan over the phone.

ACT “Excuse me—how many of you speak English..if you do and you don’t want to wait..does anybody here speak English, you can leave your info and I will call you and do this over the phone..�

“Anybody else want me to call them back do it over the phone…�

Claude was told to wait by his phone for the next couple of hours.

ACT-Claude “Its confusing to me, I don’t know what to say..like the lady says I'm fortunate I'm not using medication…

More than half a dozen sales people from the drug manufacturer Abbot laboratories were there, but to avoid charges of bias, they don’t help people choose the plans. This man who decided not to use his name, says they just help move chairs around and talk to the people. But the Abbot logo is displayed on their shirts.

ACT “I think they’re just confused about the plans..�

Phil Compton with the Florida consumer Action network said he thinks local promotional visits to the area by Secretary of health and Human Services Mike Leavitt and President Bush are inappropriate.

ACT-Compton The bush admin is coming to Tampa the next 2 days for the deadline..Leavitt and Bush, we hope that they are here they take other time to apologize for the way part D has been a disaster.

But when Secretary Leavitt arrived, his advance man turned on some music and he made the rounds, speaking to half a dozen seniors in the ten minutes he spent at the center.

ACT-SONG—YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG

ACT-Leavitt with woman “You are saving..yes..I'm glad you came..�

Leavitt said he’s trying to get the word out, primarily to 3 groups of people. People over 65 who don’t take drugs right now, people with high incomes, family members and friends of seniors. Zoila Lanca thanked Secretary Leavitt for visiting, but then after he walked away, described how hard it has been for her to work with Medicare representatives on the phone.

ACT-Zoila Lanca “When I first called, I called for 2 months…�

The number to call to sign up for part D is 1-800-MEDICARE . People have to make a list of all the drugs they take and have their Medicare card ready—Secretary Leavitt said it will take a half an hour on the phone, although Compton cited a report by the Governments general accounting office, which found that it can take longer just to get through, and even then it may be hard to get good information.

ACT-comp “1 third of calls had to answer, 5 percent were disconnected, 25 percent waited for 5 minutes..and basic designs of website were overly complicated�

Compton was also critical of the fact that Medicare can’t negotiate discounts with the pharmaceutical companies. The Veterans Administration can negotiate for lower prices, which then get passed on to citizens in the form of lower drug prices. Compton says the plan is complicated and corrupt, and needs to be fixed. The first step would be an extension of the May 15th deadline to sign up for a plan, which he wants to be moved back to the end of the year. Although Leavitt acknowledged that several hundred thousand Floridians who are eligible for discounts still haven’t signed up, he believes that 125 days into the new system he believes things are going quite well. He brushed off a question about extending the deadline.

ACT-Leavitt “The reality is we will have signed up most people, rather than a new deadline, we need to get people enrolled…�

A Senate bill that would have extended the deadline to December 31st failed by two votes, Florida senator Mel Martinez voted against an extension. There is a house bill that would do the same thing, which could be voted on later this week, and Compton said Floridians should call their local State Representative. WMNF asked secretary Leavitt how having a deadline that means millions of Americans will pay more for their medications for the rest of their lives is supposed to help the country.

ACT-Leavitt �there’s a deadline for everything, people file their tax returns..�

Leavitt said that over 37 million seniors have signed up so far and he expects millions more will within the next week. Leavitt says he thinks that by Monday, there will still be at least 4 million eligible people who have not enrolled, but half of them are low income people, and the deadline will be extended for them. There will be a special last day prescription drug plan enrollment fair next Monday, May 15th and the University health Center North 22nd St at 136th avenue in Tampa beginning at 10am. The website to sign up for Medicare part D is www.medicare.gov

For WMNF news, I’m Andrew Stelzer

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