Medicare Help Line Is Frequently Unhelpful, Study Finds

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that those answering calls to Medicare's toll-free hotline are providing misinformation nearly one-third of the time.

The help line, 1-800-MEDICARE, answers questions about changes in the Medicare program, including the new Medicare discount drug cards. The GAO found that the help line provided accurate answers to only 61 percent of the 420 calls made and inaccurate answers to 29 percent. Answers were not obtained for the remaining 10 percent of calls. The training for help line staff "is not sufficient to ensure that [they] are able to answer questions accurately on the help line," the GAO said.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Mark McClellan said CMS is in the process of correcting some of the hotline's problems. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) called for an immediate fix. "There's no time to waste," Grassley said. "This help line will be an even more important resource for Medicare beneficiaries and their families a year from now, when the new voluntary prescription drug benefit becomes available."

However, the problem may be as much with the new law's complexity as with staff training. On the first anniversary of the Medicare prescription drug law, CMS revealed that to date only 6 million of the nation's more than 40 million Medicare beneficiaries have enrolled in the discount drug card program, and only 1.5 million low-income beneficiaries have done so. The Bush administration originally estimated that more than 4.5 million of the more than 7 million low-income beneficiaries eligible for the program would enroll.

Many who have worked to enroll the elderly blame the shortfall on the program's complexity.

Noting that the drug benefit slated to begin in January 2006 will be "even more confusing for older and disabled Americans," Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, said that Congress must "learn the lesson of the human hardship caused by these complex benefits. There is a three-word solution: simplify, simplify, simplify."

For more on the GAO report, go to:

To read an Associated Press article on the problems with drug card enrollment, click here.