- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2005

Federal and some local agencies are facing a surge of enrollees for the Medicare drug benefit that goes into effect Sunday.

“We’ve been hammered,” said Jay DeBoer, commissioner of the Virginia Department for the Aging.

The agency, with 27 employees, has been handling an average 4,500 calls a month since November from senior citizens seeking help in choosing drug plans from the program, known as Part D.

“That’s about fourfold our normal volume of calls. It’s just massive,” Mr. DeBoer said, adding that Virginia residents have 42 plans in the program from which to choose.

Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, started enrollment for the drug benefit on Nov. 15. The benefit will reduce the out-of-pocket expense of prescription drugs for seniors.

At least 1 million Americans have signed up for the program, with another 500,000 expected to be enrolled by the end of January, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The agency’s hot line, 800/633-4227, received its highest volume on Nov. 15 with 408,000 calls, but has experienced “robust activity” in the past few weeks, said CMS spokesman Peter Ashkenaz.

The agency on Wednesday received 117,000 calls, Mr. Ashkenaz said. He had no year-ago comparable number.

Senior citizens can enroll in the program until May 15 for drug coverage in 2006 without incurring a penalty fee.

Mr. DeBoer said many consumers are signing up now to start their coverage Sunday. Seniors who sign up after Sunday must wait until the next month for their prescription benefits to start.

Additionally, consumers who are dual-eligible for the drug benefit and Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor, must choose between the programs or risk losing some drug coverage, said Suzanne Jackson, who is assisting D.C. residents through George Washington University Law School’s health insurance counseling project.

The group, which received about $20,000 in government funding to help D.C. residents choose among the 42 stand-alone plans in the District, received about 1,000 calls in the past month.

“We’re still responding to calls made to us in November,” said Ms. Jackson, project director.

Not all agencies are experiencing a high volume of calls this week.

The roughly 20 local aging agencies in Maryland, which help residents wade through the state’s 48 plans, have had a lull in calls in the past two weeks, said Cassaundra Brown, a health insurance specialist with the state’s Department of Aging.

“I expect a lot to happen in January,” Ms. Brown said.

“My Medicare Matters,” an education campaign started last month by the National Council on the Aging and other health groups, also experienced little increase in enrollment calls in the past few weeks, said spokesman Scott Parkin.

“I think that’s because the message over the last few months beamed out of [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] and elsewhere is: Don’t rush. Take your time and make a careful decision,” Mr. Parkin said. The “real surge” in enrollment likely will come before the May 15 deadline, he said.

Health Care runs Fridays. Call 202/636-4892 or e-mail [email protected]washingtontimes.com.

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