- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

Just months ago President Bush was urging America’s seniors weekly to enroll in the new Medicare prescription drug plan and federal officials scrambled across the country to inform them that time was running out.

In just a few days, the next enrollment period will begin without the fanfare, but for many seniors this season is just as important.

Beginning Wednesday, seniors can select a new drug plan or keep their existing plan.

Seniors have until Dec. 31 to choose a new plan or enroll for the first time. But Leslie Norwalk, acting administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), says people should enroll by Dec. 8 to ensure enrollment for the beginning of the year. People who enroll after that date may not be in databases by Jan. 1, which would create a delay at the pharmacy counter.

Seniors will have only six weeks to sign up this year compared with the six months they had last year. That’s because the government is not trying to sign up every Medicare beneficiary, which it came close to doing last year. This year, the government is primarily targeting low-income people who do not have coverage.

For those satisfied with their drug plans, the enrollment period offers an opportunity to save money and ensure access to needed medications.

“There are a lot of enhanced drug plans available next year with lower-cost drugs and better coverage,” said CMS spokesman Jeff Nelligan. “There are options people should look at.”

Indeed, 83 percent of people enrolled in a drug plan can save money on monthly premiums by changing plans, Mr. Nelligan said. And the number of drug plans offering coverage in the so-called doughnut hole, a gap in drug coverage, has increased from a few plans last year to more than 500 plans next year.

But the flip side can be true as well.

Elyse Politi, coordinator for the State Health Insurance Assistance Program in Arlington County says 70 percent of the county’s enrollees would be better off in a new plan.

“There are a lot of changes in drug plans that are difficult to catch,” she said. “There are a lot of premium increases and some drug prices have gone up, a lot of generics have co-payments that didn’t last year.”

Another motivator is avoiding a potentially costly penalty. The penalty for not signing up is a permanent 1 percent increase in the monthly bill for each month of delayed enrollment. That means eligible seniors who did not sign up before last year’s deadline will pay a 7 percent late-enrollment penalty on their premiums, which will average about $24 next year.

For low-income seniors, the enrollment period is critical.

Nearly one million of them either no longer qualify for a government subsidy or their drug plans no longer qualify them for the extra help.

The subsidy given to low-income people pays for monthly premiums and prescription co-payments and can be worth as much as $4,000 a year.

Because they no longer qualify for the help, CMS will reassign about 300,000 people to new drug plans. In addition, more than 600,000 people who no longer qualify for the extra help must re-apply or face a monthly bill for the first time.

CMS is sending seniors a letter this week informing them they will be automatically enrolled in a different drug plan next year. The federal agency and the Social Security Administration sent letters in September explaining how to re-apply for the subsidy.

Health Care runs Fridays. Call Gregory Lopes at 202/636-4892 or e-mail glopes@washingtontimes.com.

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