- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Administration officials yesterday told senators the new Medicare prescription-drug program has problems, but they’re under control, and states will be reimbursed for covering seniors’ prescription costs resulting from the glitches.

Senators on the Finance Committee seemed cautiously optimistic at the assurances, but some said Congress will still probably need to act.

“I think there’s no question that the issue of prescription drugs will be back on the [Senate] floor in some form this year,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said yesterday, “We’ve identified the problems, we’re working on them and the plan gets better every day.”

He and Medicare chief Mark McClellan had a private meeting yesterday with committee members to brief them on the situation.

Since the new Medicare drug program began three weeks ago, enrollment problems have left many seniors without coverage, and more than 20 states stepped in to cover costs. Low-income seniors had the most trouble, as the government worked to automatically transfer them from Medicaid drug coverage to the new Medicare program.

Mr. McClellan said states should first seek reimbursement from private plans offering the drug coverage, but the government will reimburse the states for any difference. The total price tag isn’t clear yet.

“The good news is the administration does admit there’s problems,” said Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and the Finance Committee’s ranking member, who will work with committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, to “nail down” a timeline for reimbursement. He said that if he’s not satisfied with the reimbursement plan, “then I think legislation will be much more likely.”

He also said some seniors are paying co-payments they shouldn’t.

Mr. Grassley said he’ll follow up with a public hearing on the new program, but he’s satisfied Mr. Leavitt has it “under control.”

“They’ve identified problems very well … and I feel they’re making good progress,” he said.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, said officials are “making good-faith efforts,” and reimbursement legislation “may not be necessary.”

But she and other senators are ready with a bill that would reimburse the states, cut the wait time for seniors who call the Medicare hot line and make other changes.

Today, top Senate Democrats will demand President Bush make immediate changes to fix the program.

Mrs. Snowe said legislation may be required to extend the mid-May deadline seniors face for choosing their new drug plan. Mr. Grassley said that will be decided closer to May.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said he worried the administration will “leave the states holding the bag” on the reimbursement issue.

“We have to monitor very carefully,” Mr. Schumer said.

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