Is Medicare Drug Plan Too Complex

The government says millions of senior citizens are taking advantage of the prescription drug coverage now provided by Medicare. In fact, almost two months into the new Medicare drug benefit, officials are claiming a milestone — more than 25 million seniors with drug coverage. But if the new program was supposed to dramatically reduce the number of Americans with no drug coverage, CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews says that it hasn't done nearly as well as it might appear.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Levitt announced the 25 million milestone in Alabama, surrounded by seniors grateful to be covered and saving money.

"Every day we're filling millions of prescriptions, and people are finding this to be extraordinarily helpful to them," Levitt said.

But senior citizen advocates say the claim of success is wildly overstated. The program, they say is missing at least 6 million low-income seniors — exactly the ones who need the benefit the most.

"The overwhelming majority of low-income people who did not have health coverage that included drugs before are still not enrolled in this program, and they can't afford their medicines," says Ron Pollock, executive director of Families USA.

Then there's the problem of seniors sitting on the sideline. For a lot of senior citizens, the new program is more of a puzzle than a benefit.

Alvin Shapiro, age 85, used to manage retirement funds. But he says he's not signing up for any plan he can't understand — and the new Medicare plan, he contends, "is much too complicated.".

There's no doubt that Medicare helps millions of Americans. But take a closer look at the government's numbers. Of the 25 million people Medicare claims are now covered, almost 20 million previously had drug coverage — through employers (7 million), Medicaid (6 million), HMOs (4.5 million) and the federal government or military (3 million). The actual number of seniors who have brand-new Medicare drug coverage is about 5.4 million — not 25 million.

Seniors have until May 15 to sign up for the new benefit without penalty, so it's likely that part of the signup gap is due to procrastination. Even so, at least 10 million seniors, faced with this generous invitation, still haven't sent back their RSVPs for the party.

  • John Kreiser

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