WASHINGTON Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested Thursday that the beleaguered Medicare prescription drug program be scrapped, even though the plan's top administrator argued its glitches are being fixed.
"I . . . believe we should scrap this and start over," said Clinton, D-N.Y., at the first congressional hearing on the program since its Jan. 1 rollout. "We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on an inefficient delivery of a plan
that could be done in a much more cost-effective way."
Clinton's comments echoed those of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who suggested in November the plan should be abandoned and replaced with something simpler.
At a hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Clinton said that in recent visits to pharmacies all across New York, she met seniors -- some in tears who were struggling with the program.
"It is an absolute embarrassment -- outrage, deep heartbreaking disappointment -- to be in the presence of people who are so distraught, confused, upset and feeling abandoned," Clinton said.
Acknowledging that the new Medicare Part D program left seniors to choose from a vast array of confusing prescription plans, Medicare chief Mark B. McClellan said he expects that to change. "Looking toward simplification is absolutely the next step in this process, now that we've got the benefit in place," he said.
"A change this big in a short period of time is bound to have some problems," added McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Most notably, he said, a few hundred thousand people nationwide lost prescription coverage on Jan. 1. Those people had been enrolled with Medicaid, the health program for the poor, and were not automatically enrolled in the new Medicare program as they should have been.
McClellan said many of those problems had been corrected. States will be reimbursed for any costs they incurred when they picked up the tab for prescriptions for those who lost their drug coverage. Under questioning from Clinton, he also promised that pharmacies would be paid back if they provided drugs to such patients on an emergency basis.
Many seniors have signed up for the new benefit without any trouble, McClellan said. "We've identified the problems," he said. "We've been taking steps to fix them, and we're seeing millions of prescriptions getting filled. We're seeing tens of thousands of people signing up every day."
Democratic senators saw things differently.
When McClellan suggested that program administrators wanted to make it "even easier" for people to choose a drug plan, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., interrupted. "Easier? It is bedlam out there," Wyden said. "Older people are saying you can't even sort this out with an advanced degree."
Clinton and other Democrats have offered several legislative proposals to deal with some of the program's glitches. And Republican senators said they, too, had heard many complaints about the program.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., criticized Clinton's proposal to abandon the program which came 12 years after the health reform plan she proposed as first lady died amid criticism that it was too complex.
Santorum noted it took 20 years for Congress to agree on a prescription plan for seniors, meaning it would not be easily replaced. "We should not be so quick to throw babies out with bathwaters," Santorum said.