Democrats Slam Info on HHS Web Site

Posted July 6, 2004 at 7:03pm

Congressional Democrats are lashing out again at the Bush administration’s handling of the new Medicare prescription drug law, this time pointing out errors on the Health and Human Services Department’s Web site that could lead seniors to sign up for the wrong prescription-discount card — an error they won’t be able to rectify quickly or easily.

In a letter Tuesday to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) contended that the Web site mistakenly lists several pharmacies as accepting Medicare-approved prescription drug cards when they in fact do not. In a few cases, the site listed pharmacies that are no longer in business.

Waxman and Slaughter argued that HHS could be costing seniors money by encouraging them to go to nearby pharmacies that they assume, incorrectly, accept the drug cards. The cards are issued by private companies and provide limited discounts on specific drugs.

“Seniors who go to the website and choose a drug card because they believe that their local pharmacy is a participant may find that this is not the case. As a result, the card they choose could leave them without access to their local pharmacy,” Waxman and Slaughter wrote.

Waxman and Slaughter also accused some drug-card sponsors of circumventing HHS rules that govern how participating pharmacies should be identified.

Under the Medicare plan, seniors can have only one discount drug card. Once seniors have signed up for one card, they can only change cards during a six-week period, scheduled next for November and December of this year, a Waxman spokeswoman said.

In response, HHS spokesman Bill Pierce said Waxman and Slaughter’s complaint belied the fact that “millions of seniors are getting savings and a real benefit from Medicare drug discount cards.”

Pierce said the lawmakers’ letter was focused on a handful of irregularities for a program that has over 50,000 pharmacies participating.

Still, Pierce added that the complaints listed in their letter would likely be investigated.

“Every complaint we get is investigated,” said Pierce. “It’s the way we do things in Medicare.”

In an apparent attempt to embarrass HHS, Waxman’s staff on the House Government Reform Committee — a panel for which he is the ranking minority member — surveyed 10 independently owned pharmacies within a 2-mile radius of the HHS headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. The staff found that one pharmacy that was listed on the Web site as accepting 23 different drug discount cards is accepting only 11, while another pharmacy listed as accepting 19 cards is accepting only nine.

In another case, a Capitol Hill pharmacy listed as accepting seven different drug cards “appears to be closed,” according to the letter.

“Even though these pharmacies are virtually at the Department’s doorstep, the information available on the Medicare.gov website was inaccurate for the majority of the pharmacies,” the letter states.

Waxman and Slaughter also noted that a Langdon, N.D., pharmacy that has been closed for at least three years was listed on the Medicare Web site as accepting six different drug cards.

“This site is listed as the only pharmacy in the community that accepts the myPharmacare card, and there are no other pharmacies listed as participating with this card within 25 miles of this rural community,” the letter says. “According to the North Dakota Pharmacists Association, at least one senior in North Dakota relied on the misleading information on the Medicare.gov website to sign up for a drug card that is not even accepted in the community.”

Another survey by Slaughter’s staff, done in conjunction with Waxman’s, found 45 examples in her Upstate New York district in which the Medicare Web site erroneously stated that certain cards were accepted by local pharmacies.

Waxman and Slaughter said that part of the problem had to do with some drug discount card providers. Rather than having pharmacies affirmatively say they are participants, the Congressional duo said, the companies instead assume that silence by a pharmacy indicates that they will accept the cards.

“At least seven drug-card sponsors appear to have used these passive-acceptance agreements,” the pair wrote. The companies include AdvancePCS, Anthem Prescription Management, Argus Health Systems, Pharmacare, and Medco Health Solutions, the pair wrote.