Medicare beneficiaries sent empty envelopes

Recipients were supposed to receive information about new prescription drug benefits, but Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services acknowledges some problems with mailing.

The government's effort to educate low-income Medicare beneficiaries about prescription drug benefits might lead to confusion instead. An unknown number of intended recipients found only empty envelopes in their mailboxes.

After its first mass-mailing late last month -- part of a complicated effort to reach 4.7 million low-income beneficiaries -- the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services received several calls about errors in the mailings.

"CMS has become aware that, in some cases, the intended recipients of the letters received empty envelopes," stated a Medicare posting on a drug-benefit listserve. "We believe this is a very limited problem and a random one that is not concentrated in any given state."

A Medicare spokesman said Tuesday that the number of such envelopes may be small, and called it an "apparently very tiny problem." But the posting noted that even if only one-tenth of one percent of the envelopes mailed had problems, 6,000 people would be affected.

The spokesman also noted that the letters were being sent to those who will be automatically enrolled in a drug-benefit plan -- people eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid known as "dual eligibles" -- and that the mailings were intended only to inform them about the new benefit. Medicare will be contacting those people again in the fall.

But the mishap underscores the difficulty that Medicare faces in reaching out to a notoriously hard-to-reach community: poor seniors. Medicare is relying on a small army of partners, including community groups, the AARP and the Access to Benefits Coalition, to help them get the message out to beneficiaries.

Dual-eligibles get the most help in paying for their drugs under the new benefit, and they will be randomly enrolled in a plan unless they choose one themselves. But education also is important for regular Medicare beneficiaries, most of whom will not be automatically enrolled in a plan. If seniors do not elect a drug plan by the middle of 2006, they might be penalized.

Meanwhile, CMS Administrator Mark McClellan visited a House GOP leadership meeting on Capitol Hill Tuesday to brief lawmakers about Medicare's plan to educate seniors about the new drug benefit and to coordinate efforts to promote it.