Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Black doctors and advocates for senior citizens spoke loudly to black Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill yesterday urging them to put politics aside and work harder to enroll seniors in the Medicare prescription drug plan.

“We find ourselves in a difficult position because we didn’t support the president’s Medicare drug plan in its current form, but among those who have had the most difficulty enrolling in the plan are African- Americans,” said Delegate Donna M.C. Christensen, Virgin Islands Democrat, and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Health Braintrust.

She said black lawmakers are obligated to redouble their efforts to educate seniors in their districts about the plan and get them enrolled before the May 15 deadline.

President Bush is also worried about seniors not signing up. Yesterday in New York, the president admitted the early going had been confusing, but he urged retirees to give the program a second look.

“People need to take a look,” Mr. Bush said. “One of the reasons I have come is to ask people who are eligible for Medicare just to explore the options. It’s a good deal.”

If a person who qualifies for Medicare Part D does not enroll by the May 15 deadline, they will have to pay 100 percent of the cost for their prescription drugs until the next enrollment period in November. They also will be penalized a 1 percent reduction in cost coverage for each month they are not enrolled for the rest of their life.

Democrats yesterday called on Mr. Bush to extend the deadline and remove the penalty from the plan. But black doctors, fearing that many of the more than 4 million eligible black seniors will be left out, said regardless of the president’s response, waiting is not an option and the time has come to educate seniors about the benefit and get them enrolled.

“We want to take the politics out of the equation and focus on the benefits of Medicare Part D,” said Dr. Sandra L. Gadson, president of the National Medical Association, a group of more than 25,000 black doctors. She said black leaders “can ill afford to sit back while our senior population struggles with how to get enrolled in this valuable program.”

Dr. Garth N. Graham, deputy assistant secretary for minority health with the Department of Health and Human Services, said the administration is also a partner with the NMA, AARP, the National Pan-Hellenic Council of black sororities and fraternities, the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to educate seniors.

Each group will work with its chapters across the country to put on local town hall meetings, mobile office tours and incorporate any other ideas such as health fairs to get the message out, but they have only 75 days to do it.

Democrats have opposed and denounced the Medicare drug plan since 2003, but that has put black politicians, mostly Democrats, at odds with many of their senior constituents, who are not only confused by the plan but also by the message from their representatives.

The NMA’s message to the black community “is that this will help seniors, despite the maze you have to go through to get enrolled,” said Ben Johnson, former assistant to President Clinton.

He said many black seniors have said that ministers and other black leaders have told them not to enroll.

“I am delighted that the NMA has stepped up to the plate to correct that,” Mr. Johnson said.

Fran Cooper, 67, an enrollee from Bellevue, Neb., said she hated the plan when she first enrolled and hated it more after she went through the process of educating herself about it, which for the most part can only be done via the Internet — a problem for black seniors who have limited familiarity with or access to computers.

She said the best approach is to have health fairs, where elected officials invite the insurance companies to meet with seniors to figure out the plan that works best for them.

“You can never make this work by giving out general information, because this is not a general plan; it’s a personal plan, no different than the coverage you had when you were working,” Mrs. Cooper said.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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