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Medicare Steps up Outreach on Rx Cards

Agency to Directly Mail Cards to Poor Seniors Qualifying for Extra Benefits

WebMD Health News

Sept. 22, 2004 -- Medicare is preparing to directly mail prescription drug discount cards to 1.8 million low-income elderly beneficiaries.

Nearly 7 million poor beneficiaries are eligible for the extra help with drug costs under the card program, but officials say they chose this smaller group because they are relatively easy to find on state rolls and nearly all are eligible for the help.

Seniors living at less than 135% of the federal poverty level are eligible for $600 this year and $600 in 2005 to help pay for drug costs under Medicare's discount card program. Several drug companies are offering low-income seniors additional discounts for their products.

Advocacy groups have criticized the agency for failing to reach out to more seniors eligible for the financial assistance, despite repeated Bush administration attempts to publicize the program since April.

Nearly 4.4 million of Medicare's 40 million beneficiaries have signed up for discount cards. Approximately 1.1 million poor seniors receive the extra aid out of who are eligible, according to the agency.

Cards by Direct Mail

Officials say they will now directly mail drug discount cards to each of the 1.8 million persons enrolled in state programs beginning in mid-October, with benefits beginning in November. Recipients can activate their federal credit by calling 800-MEDICARE or the drug card's sponsor and confirming that they do not have other drug coverage.

Cards will be randomly selected from a list of the 19 cards with national coverage whose sponsors chose to participate in the automatic mailings. Seniors may use the card or switch to another by calling the agency.

Officials say they do not have an estimate of how many of the 1.8 million recipients will actually be eligible or will take advantage of the cards.

"I want to get every one of these individuals signed up," says Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

The $1,200 total credit is available to individual seniors making below $12,570 per year or couples making below $16,862. Those included in the new Medicare mailings come from a list of seniors identified as "Qualified Medicare Beneficiaries" or "Specified Medicare Beneficiaries" under state programs that help pay for other health costs.

Medicare chief Mark B. McClellan says that using the state rolls makes it easier to find a portion of poor seniors who qualify for the money but either don't know about the program or are hard to find.

"Part of the problem is identifying who they are," he says.

James Furman, president of the Access to Benefits Coalition calls the mailings "a breakthrough." Furman's group of 92 advocacy organizations has pressured Medicare officials to expand automatic enrollment in the card program.

Furman compares finding low-income seniors who qualify for the federal credits with searching for "needles in a haystack."

"Somebody's already found a pile of needles" in the state Medicare assistance plans, he says.

AARP, which is part of the coalition, praised the move. "Making enrollment easier will help hundreds of thousands of people who qualify for a $600 annual credit on the cards to receive that assistance to help purchase prescription drugs" says associate executive director Mark Hansen, in a statement.

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