- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

The Bush administration celebrated the one-year anniversary of its $534 billion Medicare prescription-drug law yesterday, although the heaviest lifting in implementing the new drug benefit lies ahead.

“This anniversary marks a very historic event,” Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said, praising “the modernization of Medicare.”

“We accomplished what this town couldn’t for more than a decade.”

One year ago — despite protests from fiscally conservative Republicans who said it would break the bank — President Bush signed the Medicare Modernization Act, which created a prescription-drug benefit for the program’s 41 million seniors. The drug benefit is scheduled to go into effect by 2006, but the program has encountered some hurdles.

The latest came yesterday. As the administration celebrated, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that found problems with the 1-800-Medicare help line that the administration set up to answer seniors’ questions about the new law.

The report said callers received inaccurate answers to questions about 30 percent of the time and 10 percent of callers didn’t receive answers at all, because they either were diverted to voice mail or disconnected.

In the past year, the administration has worked to implement the first phase of the law — a prescription-drug discount card for seniors. Officials initially had trouble persuading seniors to sign up for the card. Yesterday, HHS reported that 5.8 million people have signed up so far and are receiving discounts of up to 21 percent off average drug prices.

“We’re helping more beneficiaries faster than ever,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, praised the law as “the most significant improvement to the Medicare program since its inception” almost 40 years ago.

But the GAO findings prompted concern. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who helped craft the Medicare law, said the help-line problems must be fixed immediately, before the drug benefit goes into effect.

“There’s no time to waste,” Mr. Grassley said. “This help line will be an even more important resource for Medicare beneficiaries and their families a year from now, when the new voluntary prescription-drug benefit becomes available.”

The next phase of the law begins in January, with preventive benefits such as free physicals and cholesterol and diabetes screenings for Medicare beneficiaries.

Democrats say the new law is a giveaway to pharmaceutical and insurance companies, while conservative critics say it is financially damaging and will push many seniors who have private drug coverage onto government rolls.

“It was a stunning act of fiscal irresponsibility,” said Robert Moffit, health care specialist at the Heritage Foundation. “They’ve accelerated Medicare spending, deepened the financial problems of Medicare, and they are crowding out existing private coverage.”

Mr. Moffit said that because many seniors already have drug coverage, “we never needed to create a giant entitlement to prescription drugs.”

The Medicare drug bill squeaked through the House and Senate after long nights of persuasion by Republican leaders in both chambers. Congress initially was told that the program would cost $400 billion over 10 years, but after the bill was passed, the administration released an estimate of $534 billion — prompting cries of outrage from some members that the higher figure was withheld from them purposely.

Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida was one of 25 Republicans who voted against the bill, but speculated that if the vote were taken again tomorrow, that number would be at least 75. He said the massive entitlement’s long-term financial effect on the economy will be devastating.

“I’m less concerned with one-year anniversaries than in what Medicare will look like on the 30th anniversary,” he said. “Now, it’s time to analyze the long-term fiscal effects … and I don’t hear anyone saying it’ll make things better.”

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