- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2005

BALTIMORE (AP) — City officials are starting a plan to help the elderly and disabled receive drugs through the new federal Medicare drug program, which takes effect New Year’s Day.

The 24-hour Baltimore system will monitor problems and help resolve them quickly, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the city’s health commissioner.

In urgent cases, the city will pay for prescriptions to be filled to ensure an uninterrupted supply, although it’s more likely that the program will help residents enroll in the new program and resolve billing problems, the health commissioner said.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) says it also has contingency plans in place to make sure people get the medicines they need.

Nationally, more than 40 million elderly people can choose pharmacy plans, many for the first time, under the new Medicare prescription-benefit program.

About 6 million nationwide are already in state-run programs for people with low incomes and will be switched automatically into one of the private Medicare plans.

Last week, government auditors said they were not sure that all poor people now getting medicine through Medicaid will be able to get their prescriptions filled beginning Jan. 1.

Several advocacy groups recently sued the Health and Human Services Department and asked that it be required to continue existing drug coverage for the dual eligibles until those beneficiaries are enrolled in a plan that meets all their prescription needs.

About 80,000 people statewide and 28,000 in Baltimore have prescription coverage under Medicaid or other state programs that will be shifted to Medicare.

“If one person switches, it’s an insurance issue,” Dr. Sharfstein said. “When 28,000 people switch on one day, it’s a public-health issue.”

CMS spokesman Peter Ashkenaz said the Baltimore program could provide useful feedback to the federal agency and insurers running prescription plans.

However, he said the agency is confident that its contingency plans will protect seniors who need medications.

For example, those not enrolled can be “enrolled while standing at the pharmacy” in a temporary national plan.

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