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Health Care Reform:

Health Insurance & Affordable Care Act

Medicare Nears 40, but Is Still Changing

Administrator Touts New Focus on Preventive Care

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Coming Soon: Prescription Drug Benefit

Getting those drugs to seniors could be a big challenge for Medicare. The program is set to begin in November signing up seniors for the Part D prescription drug benefit, with benefits scheduled to begin Jan. 1, 2006.

Medicare and dozens of private groups have launched an education campaign designed to alert seniors about the benefits and how to apply. One survey released Wednesday suggested that interest in the program so far is low.

Less than a third of 821 beneficiaries surveyed by Texas-based DSS Research said they were likely to sign up for the benefit when it becomes available. Interest was higher among poorer seniors and those with higher annual drug costs.

McClellan said his agency is working with Social Security and a range of national and local groups to educate seniors in time for Part D's scheduled start.

"It takes a lot more than a few ads or speeches to help seniors make confident, informed decisions about their coverage," he said.

Growing Costs

Still, the financial condition of Medicare and Medicaid remain a contentious issue. The Bush administration this week convened a commission charged with recommending ways to cut $10 billion in spending.

Consumers groups are deeply opposed to the cuts, saying they will damage the health care safety net relied upon by millions of low-income Americans.

"Tell your members of Congress: On Medicaid's birthday, don't cut it -- protect it," the consumer health group Families USA said Thursday in a statement.

Medicare's long-term finances also loom even as policy makers focus on reforming Social Security. AARP warned Thursday that beneficiaries' out-of-pocket premium costs are expected to keep rising as Medicare's costs go up in future years.

"As the nation looks for ways to keep Social Security solvent, it must protect its guaranteed benefit which will be vital not only to the economic security of older Americans, but to their health security as well," said John Rother, the group's director of policy.

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