Medicare benefit cost under budget

Published 2:38 pm Monday, December 4, 2006

By By Jo Bonner
For just over a year now, senior Americans have been enjoying the benefits of the permanent Medicare prescription drug benefit helping them meet the cost of their medication.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS), the agency that overseas the drug benefit, announced last week that its cost is nearly $13 billion less than expected this year, which is about 30 percent below the projected $43 billion.
When the program was launched last year, there were an abundance of misleading accounts regarding not only the cost of the program but the ability of seniors to understand and choose the plan right for them. However, the study released last week shows how wrong these reports truly were.
Thanks to the market-oriented competitive structure, the prescription drug program is projected to cost about $200 billion less in its first decade that initially estimated.
When Congress crafted the prescription drug benefit in 2003, it was a priority to introduce a competitive pricing structure to the process in order to lower drug costs for seniors. The competition has had the intended effect – it is driving down drug prices and premiums for seniors. In fact, the average monthly premium for 2007 is $24, the same as in 2006. On average, beneficiaries are saving more than $1200 a year on their drug bills.
There are many plans available that have no premiums or no deductibles. According to CMS, a typical beneficiary with no coverage today will save about 50 percent on prescription drug costs under this program.
For seniors with limited means, additional help is also available. About one-third of all people with Medicare will qualify for extra assistance that will cover between 85 percent and almost 100 percent of prescription drug costs. More than one million low-income seniors have been approved for the extra financial assistance.
Everyone with Medicare is eligible for the coverage, regardless of income level and resources, preexisting conditions, or current expenses.
We are currently in the midst of the Medicare annual Open Enrollment Period, which lasts until December 31, 2006. During this time, Medicare beneficiaries can change or add coverage to their current Medicare health and prescription drug plans.
Even though the deadline is December 31, CMS officials encourage those who plan to make changes or join to do so by December 8 to avoid any delay in accessing their coverage in January.
Keep in mind, the drug benefit is voluntary and flexible. If needed, seniors can revisit their options and change their Medicare plan annually. When using your Medicare prescription drug benefit for the first time, CMS suggests bringing your enrollment card or, if you have not received a card, a confirmation letter from your plan provider to the pharmacy. Also, you should bring your Medicaid card if you are Medicaid eligible.
There are several resources containing information about the different plans or instructions on how to sign up:
There are numerous resources to help seniors sign up for a drug plan that best fits their needs, including local senior centers, your local pharmacy, and CMS has a toll-free hotline to talk to a Medicare representative 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That number is 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227). Building on lessons learned during the initial enrollment period, many of the resources and tools available for beneficiaries have been enhanced in the last year.
I hope all of America's seniors, who haven't already, will take the time to study which plan might be best for you, so that by the New Year, you are receiving needed prescription drugs and, in turn, saving money.
My staff and I work for you. If we can ever be of service, do not hesitate to call my office toll free at 1-800-288-8721 or visit my website at
Jo Bonner is a U.S. congressman. His column appears weekly.

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