Bipartisan group demands floor time for Medicare extension
April 19, 2006
WASHINGTON, D.C. – In less than a month, time will run out for seniors to enroll in the new Medicare prescription drug program without stiff penalties. For months, senators from across the country and across the political aisle have been pushing to give seniors additional time to pick a plan. Yet as the enrollment deadline draws near, 13 million eligible seniors have yet to sign up. With less than a month remaining, there are simply not adequately trained staff and resources to provide these seniors with the personal assistance so many need in order to make a wise enrollment choice by May 15.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of 48 senators joined together to request that leadership bring legislation to the Senate floor immediately to allow an extension of the new Medicare drug benefit enrollment period without penalty. In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and others strongly reasserted the need to give seniors more time to enroll. Both Nelson and Snowe have filed legislation to move the current deadline to the end of 2006, giving seniors seven and a half additional months to research their options and make an informed decision.
The Medicare prescription drug program has been marred with confusion and criticism since its inception. With dozens of plans to choose between, seniors quickly became confused and frustrated. Plans differ in premiums, drugs covered, cost-sharing requirements and pharmacy access. The Bush Administration even acknowledged the problem when they extended the deadline for certain low-income seniors last week. Administration officials have said that the authority for a broader extension for all seniors must come from the Congress.
Amendments extending the deadline have received majority votes in the Senate, but have failed due to parliamentary procedures that required 60 votes for passage. As a result, Nelson and Snowe say they’ll continue to push for up or down votes on their bills to extend the deadline, a move that would require only a straight majority to pass.
Their legislation would specifically extend the deadline until December 31, 2006 and would allow seniors to correct initial mistakes by switching plans without facing a financial penalty. Under current law, eligible seniors will have to pay an additional one percent on their premiums for each month they delay signing up. For example, if an eligible senior waits 12 months before signing up, he will pay an additional 12 percent on all premiums for the rest of his life. And, seniors can only enroll during open enrollment periods, meaning that those who don’t sign up by the current May 15 deadline will have to wait until 2007. As a result, they will pay at least 7 percent more for life.
“Seniors deserve better than this,” Nelson says. “They deserve enough time to research plans, ask for help and make an informed decision."
“The Medicare drug benefit has proven confusing for seniors across the country, and we must make it easier by giving them time and help to enroll in the right plan for their needs. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has made clear the high price of failing to extend the enrollment deadline – it is billions of dollars in late penalties seniors will pay in just the next ten years. But just as critical, CBO has told us that giving seniors this additional time to enroll will also result in 1.1 million more seniors receiving a drug benefit. Our goal is to make sure every senior receives the assistance they are entitled to, and our legislation assures that every senior must has adequate time and resources to make the right choice.”