- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

A new government report says the help available to seniors signing up for Medicare’s prescription drug benefit has sometimes been inadequate, and Democrats want the registration deadline — which is less than two weeks away — pushed back.

Seniors have until May 15 to enroll for the new drug benefit, after which they face a wait and a penalty. Bush administration officials continued to stand by the deadline, but Democrats said the report by the Government Accountability Office is all the more reason to extend the deadline.

GAO investigators posing as seniors found problems getting their drug program questions adequately answered by the help line. The report found that the help line provided inadequate or incomplete answers to about one-third of the callers.

And, although accuracy rates varied depending on the question, when help-line officials were asked which plan would be cheapest for a senior who takes specific drugs, they answered correctly only 41 percent of the time.

The report also found that the many written materials provided to seniors about the program could be confusing.

The government has done a good job given that it “faced a tremendous challenge,” but its communications material could be improved, the report said.

Medicare administrator Mark B. McClellan refuted the findings, saying the survey was conducted months ago.

“I’m very concerned about the report being incomplete, inaccurate and out-of-date,” he said, noting that the government has received 22 million calls to the help line in the past six months and that customer service surveys show 87 percent satisfied with their experience.

“Not only is enrollment way up, costs are down,” he told the House Ways and Means health subcommittee. “The result is coverage that serves beneficiaries well and costs less.”

Dr. McClellan argued that lifting the deadline would result in millions fewer seniors signing up. The program is working well, he said, sign-up rates are good, seniors are saving money, and massive efforts are under way to help remaining seniors sign up in the next few weeks.

Some Republicans, however, are discussing easing or suspending the penalty for late sign-up. Among them is Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who said the fees “could at some point become counterproductive to getting people to sign up.”

Rep. Pete Stark, California Democrat, said that the report “reinforces the need to extend the May 15 enrollment deadline and waive the late-enrollment penalty” and that Democrats will “keep the pressure on.”

Republican congressional leaders have been promoting the program and sending out e-mails combating Democrats’ criticism.

“I think you guys have done a super job,” Rep. Sam Johnson, Texas Republican, told Dr. McClellan yesterday. Other Republicans said that in Mr. Stark’s district, more than 70 percent of Medicare seniors have signed up.

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