Drug benefit requires simple enrollment process, experts say

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It is important to have a simple enrollment process for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit for low-income beneficiaries, healthcare policy experts said this week at a Kaiser Family Foundation forum.

One problem is that low-income beneficiaries must apply for financial assistance and then enroll. Also, many may not understand how to enroll. James Firman, CEO of the National Council on the Aging, which is leading an effort to enroll low-income beneficiaries, believes the government will have to spend from $24 to $280 per person enrolled "to achieve the kind of penetration that we want."

About 11 million Medicare beneficiaries should receive subsidies that will cover a portion of the out-of-pocket costs associated with the drug benefit. About 6.9 million of those beneficiaries are so-called dual eligibles – some who are nursing home residents -- and will be enrolled in a plan automatically. Other low-income beneficiaries must apply for subsidies starting July 1 and then enroll in a drug plan.

The federal government has taken steps to make the process simpler. It created an application form to ease assistance by third parties. Also, beneficiaries can apply over the Internet. The Social Security Administration Web site has an anonymous "Qualifier Tool" to help beneficiaries determine eligibility for the subsidies. An audio CD is also available through SSA to help walk beneficiaries through the process.