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Medicare enrolls 38.7M in drug plan

Published June 9, 2006

WASHINGTON - About 11.5-million elderly and disabled people signed up for the new Medicare drug benefit by the May 15 enrollment deadline, bringing the number of beneficiaries with drug coverage to 38.7-million, officials said Thursday.

That leaves about 4-million to 5-million beneficiaries without coverage. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said an analysis of the enrollment numbers showed that people chose plans that charged the lowest premiums - $23 on average versus original estimates of $37.

"I'd just like to stress what good news this is for our seniors and the Medicare program," Leavitt said in announcing the enrollment numbers. "Competition works. The costs are lower and enrollment in Medicare drug coverage is stronger than expected."

The numbers are in line with what the Bush administration projected in January 2005. At the time, it said about 43-million Medicare beneficiaries would be eligible and that about 39-million would participate - either voluntarily or through automatic enrollment, or drug coverage would continue through their former employer.

Leavitt lowered the projections shortly after he became secretary in January 2005. He often referred to Wall Street estimates of 28-million to 30-million enrollees as reasonable.

Critics of the program did not interpret the final numbers as good news. Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, said most of those who did not enroll are the poor.

"The moral dilemma is that the people in greatest need are the people still unenrolled," Hayes said. "Unless we can dramatically increase the number of the poorest Americans in this program, we need to re-examine the best way to meet the primary objective of the law."

Mark McClellan, who heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the agency would use its power to moderate premium increases next year. As a result, increases probably would not exceed medical inflation.

[Last modified June 9, 2006, 06:34:39]

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