Topeka — The D in Medicare Part D now stands for damage control.
President Bush's No. 1 health official stopped Thursday in Kansas to try to calm fears among state officials and senior citizens about troubles with the new federal drug benefit.
"Things, frankly, are getting smoother every day," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said.
Launched Jan. 1, the program offers 43 million Medicare recipients the ability to enroll in government-subsidized, private insurance plans for prescriptions. Leavitt said the benefit was the most significant change in health coverage in the United States in the past 40 years.
But Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, and Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, a Lawrence Republican, said problems continued to beset the program.
Under orders from Sebelius, the state has stepped in to pay for prescription drugs for low-income beneficiaries who have had trouble getting medicine through the federal program. For more than two weeks, the state has paid to fill 28,530 prescriptions for nearly 10,000 Kansans at a cost of $2 million, she said.
"We are still seeing the number of claims rise every day," Sebelius said. "We're hopeful that maybe we're seeing the peak, but each day the claims have been rising."
President Bush has promised that Kansas and other states that have taken similar actions will be reimbursed by the federal government.
Nationally, thousands of low-income senior citizens or people with disabilities have run into trouble getting prescriptions through the new program. Some have been unable to confirm coverage, while others have spent hours on the federal government's toll-free information line.
Problems with the plan prompted Leavitt to hit the road, visiting with governors and pharmacy officials.
Before meeting with Sebelius and Praeger, Leavitt and U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., spoke with Chad Ullom, pharmacy manager at a Walgreen Drug Store in downtown Topeka.
Ullom said processing prescriptions under the plan was improving.
"It was a nightmare in the beginning," he said.
John Kiefhaber, executive director of the Kansas Pharmacists Assn., said pharmacies were swamped with problems at the outset.
"In many cases, our pharmacists, concerned for their patients first, were actually funding prescriptions out of their own pockets, not knowing if they would ever be repaid," he said.
Leavitt said while the program has experienced problems, it is the most important change in the history of Medicare.
"The truth is, this is a great deal for seniors," he said.
Praeger said she was sympathetic that the task was great, but added, "We need to keep the pressure on and make sure we get the problem solved."
One of Praeger's concerns is that many of the private companies offering drug benefits aren't registered with the state insurance department.
She has proposed legislation that would require registration, which, she said, would make it easier for the state to handle any consumer complaints against the companies.
Praeger said consumer calls about confusion with the new program had gone down, but the department is now seeing an increase in complaints about particular plans not providing services.
Both Sebelius and Praeger also urged Leavitt to recommend that Congress delay the May 15 sign-up deadline because of confusion about the plan. Seniors who miss the deadline will end up paying a penalty on prescriptions.
"People shouldn't be penalized because they're confused about which drug plan to sign up for," Praeger said.
But Leavitt said he didn't think extending the deadline would be necessary.
"Now that we have seen the system begin to smooth out : as we get closer to May, more and more people are going to sign up," he said.