Maloney Holds Town Hall Forums On New Medicare Changes
Changes in Medicare have left many questions unanswered and the future of Social Security is far from settled, so Congressmember Carolyn Maloney lined up some experts on both these vital programs for seniors and held two town hall meetings in this area recently.
This past Monday, the forum was held at the Ravenswood Houses Senior Center and the previous Monday the Steinway Senior Center was the meeting site.
Maloney (D–Queens/Manhattan) opened the sessions by showing a video about the recently added prescription drug benefit, which was narrated by legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite. The new law takes effect in 2006, except for drug discount cards which start in June.
Maloney then launched into one provision of the new Medicare Law which is causing major concern. This section of the law, she said "actually prevents the federal government from trying to negotiate for lower drug prices on behalf of American seniors."
Many sponsors of drug benefit plans, because they buy drugs in great amounts, negotiate lower prices from drug firms, and then give their members their prescriptions at the reduced price.
Maloney cited the case of the Veterans Administration which, she said, has achieved considerable success at obtaining volume discounts from pharmaceutical companies, savings that the recent Medicare legislation will prevent the Department of Health and Human Services from attempting to realize.
Maloney also pointed out, "Seniors who currently have prescription drug benefits through former employers or through EPIC or Medigap policies may lose their current coverage." Both these programs offer lower priced drugs to their members.
Maloney also explained that seniors covered by both Medicare and Medicaid, the program for low-income people, will lose their significantly more comprehensive Medicaid coverage.
Making one final point of criticism of the new law, Maloney said, "This plan leaves seniors without coverage once their drug costs reach a certain threshold, until their costs qualify as catastrophic." She also urged the seniors to research thoroughly before choosing one of the 106 different discount prescription cards that will be available to low-income Medicare recipients in May or June.
On this last point, it was revealed last week by the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, that the drug discount cards might cost $30. This fact was not mentioned in information about the program sent out to prospective beneficiaries of the plan.
The next speaker was Pia Scarfo from the Medicare Rights Center, a non-profit organization that is the largest independent source of Medicare information and assistance in the United States, Maloney said.
Scarfo explained the first phase of the new law, the issuance of drug discount cards, takes effect in June and lasts through 2005. In 2006, the full program kicks in when a Medicare Part D is implemented.
Scarfo said Medicare recipients will be able to purchase the drug discount cards for about $30 per year, but the cards will be given free to Medicare members whose annual income is no more than $12,123 for a single person or $16,362 for couples.
The cards will be offered by private companies in at least 106 different versions, Scarfo said. They’re expected to save users from 10 percent to 15 percent on their prescription purchases.
Medicare Part D, Scarfo explained, will contain a $250 deductible per year, meaning Medicare recipients will pay the first $250 of drug costs incurred in a given year. Of the next $2,000 spent for drugs, the government will pay for $1,500 and the recipient will pay for the remaining $500.
At the next stage, covering the next $2,850 in costs, Medicare will pay nothing. This is called the "doughnut hole," and is one of the most criticized parts of the new program.
For drug costs above $5,100, Medicare will pay 95 percent of whatever costs a member incurs.
The final speaker was Sandra Escodar of the Social Security Administration. She was joined by Mary Jean Baker of the administration’s Astoria office.
Escodar emphasized that the coming Medicare changes would not affect the Social Security program. Maloney said seniors in the audience have expressed serious reservations about proposals to partially privatize the program. Maloney agreed.
The lawmaker pointed out, "Social Security is an insurance program providing a safe return on an investment of years of hard work. It was never intended to be an investment scheme subject to market risks."
In the question and answer period which followed, Maloney said Astoria resident George Zannos, 81, expressed criticism of the new Medicare program, saying, "They’re taking away our basic rights." Zannos urged his fellow seniors, "We have to vote or we’ll never be able to make things better."
Another senior, Norman Hodgett, 71 and a 30-year resident of Astoria, expressed support for allowing more inexpensive drugs to be purchased from foreign countries such as Canada, Maloney said.n