April 5, 2006                                                         Contact:Lucas Hamilton


      Guest Editorial
      By Montana State Auditor John Morrison
      As Montana’s Insurance Commissioner, my office is confronted daily by the chaos and confusion of Medicare's Part D drug benefit. The new federal program was enacted this past January and is designed to provide seniors with affordable options for prescription drug coverage. Unfortunately, the transition to this new program has been wrought with difficulties and frustration. We have received scores of phone calls from confused and distressed Montanans who are unable to obtain their required and often life saving medicines.
      Last week the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) sponsored a national bus tour that made stops in seven of Montana’s largest communities. State employees and volunteers on the bus were there to help guide seniors through the complicated process, as the May 15th deadline rapidly approaches. As of March 23 about 52% of Montanans have signed up, about 77,263 of the 149,305 seniors who are potentially eligible for the program. Unfortunately, with so many seniors in rural areas, such buses cannot reach all those in need of assistance.
      There are many resources out there designed to help seniors determine which program will provide them with the appropriate drug coverage. Medicare.gov is a clearing house of information, which includes a plan finder to help determine which plan is best for you. Additionally, both AARP and Consumer Reports have compiled guides and analysis on specific drug coverage plans. People can also call my office at 1-800-332-6148 or their local State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) office at 1-800-551-3191 for assistance.
      While there have been some complications, the program is ultimately designed to be a cost saving measure, and we urge you to enroll now, and/or encourage any family members to do so.
      I have written a letter to Montana’s congressional delegation asking that they work to modify some of the larger problems of this program. My suggestions include extending the May 15th deadline through the end of 2006, so no senior is unfairly penalized for late enrollment. So far, we have not received word that the deadline will be extended. We also need to implement restrictions on price and coverage changes of the prescription drug plans and make sure there is better access to customer service by directing adequate federal resources to our local State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIPs).
      Back in February, CMS Administrator Mark McClellan came to Montana and attended multiple “town hall” meetings to hear the concerns of our seniors. He vowed that the program was getting better and that by April wait times to speak to state or federal counselors would be down to five minutes. Regrettably, we have not seen the improvements or changes that he said would be coming. As the deadline for enrollment approaches, access to information and help deciphering the individual plans is more crucial than ever.
      It is imperative that Montana seniors receive the prescription drug coverage promised by Congress. With the suggested changes I have recommended to Montana’s Congressional Delegation and to CMS, the implementing federal agency, the Medicare part D program will be able to do much more to provide access to prescription drug coverage for seniors, regardless of income, health status, or prescription drug usage. These changes may or may not be forthcoming. In the meantime, it is important that Medicare beneficiaries take the time required to research the various plans, get assistance if they need it and sign up for this benefit.
      John Morrison is the Montana State Auditor and Commissioner of Insurance and Securities.