State says it’s ready for Medicare transition

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(Host) The Douglas Administration says it can handle any problems that may arise when seniors switch to a new federal drug plan next week.

But some lawmakers and advocates don’t share the administration’s confidence.

The Legislature may consider a bill that would guarantee that senior citizens get their drugs if the federal system fails.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) State officials went before lawmakers and the news media to announce that they’re ready for the transition to the new Medicare drug plan.

Human Services Secretary Cynthia LaWare says she’s not expecting a seamless changeover next week. But she said the state is ready to help. LaWare promised that the state will continue to cover some 5,000 people who have not yet signed up for a federal plan.

(LaWare) “They will receive the medications that they need and our pharmacies will get paid what they deserve to be paid.”

(Dillon) The system fell apart in early January. Thousands of low-income Vermonters learned that they weren’t enrolled in the federal system, and couldn’t get their prescriptions filled.

The state stepped in and put people back on the state-run drug program. So far, it’s cost Vermont about $8 million – money the federal government has promised to repay the money.

But the feds won’t reimburse the states for expenses incurred after March 8th – the date when the state plans to make the switch back to the Medicare plan.

Joshua Slen directs the Office of Vermont Health Access. He says the financial deadline did not play a role in the state’s decision to flip the switch back to the federal plan.

(Slen) “If in fact, the systems were not functioning, then we would not place Vermonters at risk. The systems are in fact functioning. Demonstrably. There are just demonstrable improvements that we’ve gone over.”

(Dillon) Slen’s confidence is not shared by Donna Sutton Fay. She’s the state’s health care ombudsman, and her office has fielded hundreds of calls from people who had problems with the Medicare drug plan.

(Fay) “I remain very concerned that the administration really doesn’t understand the magnitude of the problems that still exist.

(Dillon) Representative Anne Pugh of South Burlington chairs the House Human Services committee. She says the panel is considering legislation that would guarantee that the state will step in with a supply of prescriptions if the system fails again.

(Pugh) “We’re talking about vulnerable Vermonters. We’re talking about Vermonters who are senior citizens, Vermonters with disabilities, both cognitive, emotional and physical disabilities and Vermonters who are poor with these conditions. We need to make sure that these vulnerable Vermonters are protected.”

(Dillon) Starting next Wednesday, the Agency of Human Services will run a call center for two weeks to handle questions from the public.

The state has also reached out to provide information to pharmacists, Medicare beneficiaries and health care providers.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

Note:The toll free number for the Medicare call-in center is 866-261-6600, and it will go live March 8.

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