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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 10 May 2006

There's something about a deadline that makes people jump -- inspiring them to bring back those library books or finally file their taxes.

Oregon and federal officials are expecting the same response to the upcoming midnight Monday deadline to enroll in the new Medicare drug plans without financial penalty.

Medicare has added extra customer service staff to handle questions about the complicated benefits program and increased its online capacity. And the Oregon Senior Health Insurance Benefits Assistance program, which handles the enrollment assistance in the state, has extended its hours and is bracing for a few extra inquiries.

As of Friday about 160,000 Oregonians who are eligible for the benefit have not signed up, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.

"There's just something about a deadline," said Michael Marchand, spokesperson for the Northwest region of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The new Medicare benefits are intended to provide prescription drug coverage to seniors, who must choose from a number of complicated plan options. The enrollment period is Nov. 15 to May 15, although some advocates have argued it should have been extended because of confusion among seniors about details of the plan.

Roughly 70 percent of Oregon's population who are eligible for the new drug benefit have enrolled, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. At a national level, enrollment has gradually been increasing in the past few months and roughly 37 million people are now enrolled.

Claudia Grimm, program manager for the state assistance program, said calls to her organization about the program -- called Medicare Part D -- are less frequent but increasingly complicated now.

At its peak in November, the state organization got about 4,000 calls that lasted about 15 minutes each. At last count, the organization got about 1,000 calls but the average call is twice as long.

The "brain-busters," as specially trained staff there call them, are callers who need help with Medicare and an array of overlapping insurance issues. The calls can often last over an hour.

"The Medicare Part D deadline is a catalyst for them to do something," Grimm said. "For whatever reason they didn't do anything until now."

People who are eligible for Medicare have until the deadline to sign up or face a 1 percent increase in cost for each month they delay. The percentage is based on the cost of the average national plan, which equates to roughly 32.5 cents a month.

The enrollment period does not open again until November. So anyone who delays faces an increased cost of about $2. But if plan costs increase in the future, so do the penalties.

Certain groups such as low-income beneficiaries and people with special needs are exempt from the penalty.

Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has urged people to sign up because the maximum amount of support is available now. But the program options are daunting and even with the threat of a deadline, officials do not expect everyone who is eligible to sign up.

"I'm not so concerned about people who say 'I missed the May 16th deadline'," Marchand said. "My concern is with the people who say 'I didn't know this program even existed'."

People can join a Medicare drug plan through the mail, over the phone or via the Internet. Both Medicare and state assistance hotlines will be available until midnight on May 15.

-- The Associated Press

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