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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Dr. Mark McClellan
Dr. Mark McClellan
Administrator, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
March 15, 2006

Dr. Mark McClellan
Thank you for joining us on Ask the White House this afternoon. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the steps we are taking to continue educating people with Medicare about the new prescription drug coverage that is available today. This is the most important new benefit in Medicare in 40 years, and so it's understandable that we are getting lots of questions about the benefit lots of people who have Medicare, as well as people with loved ones who have Medicare.

Just two and a half months into the new benefit, we are seeing more than 26 million people in Medicare using their drug coverage. The vast majority of the millions of beneficiaries who have enrolled are using their new drug coverage successfully, plans are now filling more than a million prescriptions a day. Because of competition, this coverage is costing much less for beneficiaries, taxpayers, and the States than people expected.

I am excited to see so many questions about Medicare, and wish that we had more time to answer each and every one of them. If you do not see a response to your particular question, or if you have a follow-up question, there are many places to get an answer. I invite you to visit our website at You can also reach us by phone at 1-800-MEDICARE, we have customer service folks available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help you with any of your questions about Prescription Drug Coverage, or any other Medicare questions you may have.

Tammy, from Ohio writes:
What are we doing to help American's who are medicare and medicare disability? I am a 36 year old single female. I live at home to take care of my mother who cannot afford to live on her own because of her disabilities. I know my mother would love to be able to work again, but doctors don't anticipate this happening. So how do we help American's like my mother?

She has limited disability income, plus they are now making her pay for certain medications that aren't covered under the new medicare plan. Plus, they are trying to tell her what doctors she can see locally, instead of seeing specialist for her condition. I would like to say this is very wrong. My mother was a hard working person who deserve more than what she's getting from our Government. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you for your time and consideration.

Dr. Mark McClellan
I respect you for all the support you are providing to your mother. She is very fortunate to have such a devoted daughter. Many people like your mother qualify for Medicaid as well as Medicare, and they are often eligible for additional assistance as well. Typically, Medicare will cover 95 percent or more of drug costs for someone like that, and the state Medicaid program covers drugs that are excluded by law from the Medicare benefit. You can get personalized assistance in finding out about this assistance, and how it can work with the new Medicare coverage, from our customer service reps at 1-800-MEDICARE. You might also consider contacting a great resource for healthcare in your state, Ohio. The Ohio Senior Health Insurance Information Program, (OSHIIP) has vast knowledge of resources within your state and the federal government that may assist your mom. You can reach them at:

The Ohio Department of Insurance 2100 Stella Court Columbus, Ohio 43215-1067 (614) 644-2658 (614) 644-3743 (Fax)

Consumer Hotline: 1-800-686-1526

By the way, each state in the U.S. has a Senior Health information program, you can locate them by checking under the government index of your local phonebook, or visit our website,

Thank you for your question, Tammy.

Dawn, from Newark, New York State writes:
I have more of a suggestion than a question....After listening to President Bush speak in Canandaigua, N.Y. about Medicare and suggesting that seniors go on line to find answers to their questions, wouldn't it be beneficial to hold community informational meetings for senior citizens in the computer classrooms in our schools? I would be more than happy to set up late afternoon, evening or weekend classes for people. Not all elder citizens have access to or knowledge of how to access information electronically. I would like your opinion.Thank you....Dawn

Dr. Mark McClellan
Dawn, your idea is right on target, and I also appreciate your commitment to service. All around the country, I we have been very fortunate to work with many schools, churches, senior community centers, and other community organizations that do have computer access and volunteers to help us educate seniors about the new drug benefit. One of the people in the President's conversation yesterday was involved in these educational activities. I'm sure your assistance would be of value to the seniors in your community. To work with us, we a "partners" website that provides more information - including information that you can use with the people you know who have questions about Medicare. Just follow this link:, and you will learn more.

Thanks for your interest in serving your community. We are seeing thousands of organizations and many Americans, like you, stepping up and participating in educating their neighbors about our Prescription Drug Program.

Tom, from Fayetteville, GA writes:
where can I go to get good information on the mediacare programs that are available for my mother?thanks, Tom

Dr. Mark McClellan

There are lots of places to go for help. For someone who is "Internet enabled" like you are, one of the best sources of information is Medicare's website, This includes information on all Medicare programs. Right now, the most popular part of our site is the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan Finder. This is a very useful resource for people like your mother to find out what the Medicare drug coverage means for them. Lots of people have seen a lot about it in the papers and on the news and maybe in the mail, but they understandably want to know what it means for them. So at this site, if you provide some basic information about your mother - her Medicare number, the drugs she takes now, any pharmacy she likes to use - we can tell her about the specific Medicare drug plans available that are a good fit for her needs, and how much she can save. People with Medicare find they typically save 50 percent or more compared to not having coverage, and as much as 70 percent if they are willing to use generic drugs (which work exactly like the brand name drugs). You can also get the same information by phone at 1-800-MEDICARE, we have customer service folks available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help you with any of your questions about Prescription Drug Coverage, or any other Medicare questions you may have.

Fred, from Irvine, CA writes:
Hi, Dr. McClellan:Thanks for taking the question. I keep hearing that the drug companies can charge much higher prices for drugs under the Medicare drug plan, because people in Congress didn't want to let the federal government negotiate lower prices. Is this true? Can you explain it?


Dr. Mark McClellan
I get this question a lot, and it gives me a chance to make sure people get the facts about how the Medicare drug program works to get the best coverage at the lowest cost. The Medicare drug benefit is voluntary, and people can choose the plan that is best for them. So unless a plan negotiates low costs for very good coverage, seniors are not going to enroll. As a result, we are seeing very strong price negotiation in the drug plans - much more than independent experts had predicted. The prices are often lower than other private health plans and government Medicaid prices. In fact, the drug benefit will cost at least 20 percent less than expected this year because of the strong competition leading to lower costs. And savings for beneficiaries are even larger - premiums are averaging only around $25, even though they had been expected to be around $37 as recently as last year, before all the results of price negotiation were known. Recently, the independent Medicare actuaries and the Congressional budget analysts said that additional government negotiation would not lower prices further - and it could reduce access to needed drugs. In fact, the independent actuaries recently said that overall drug costs in the United States are now projected to be lower than they otherwise would have been, even though seniors are getting millions more prescriptions, because of the lower than expected cost of the drug benefit.

Rob, from Virginia writes:
Sir:In 1983, Congress raised the Social Security normal retirement age from 65 to 67 to respond to increasing life expectancies. Clearly America's seniors today are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. Has a similar approach been considered for Medicare, not only to improve the program's fiscal stability, but also in order to encourage near-retirees to keep their private health insurance and to encourage their employers to continue to cover them?



Dr. Mark McClellan
Rob, I agree with you that we need to be paying close attention to ways to make sure that Medicare remains available in the future for all the people who will count on it. And those people are living longer, better lives - in part because of the better medicines that Medicare is helping them get. This year, the President proposed a number of steps to make sure Medicare remains solvent and sustainable for the future.

Increasing the eligibility age was not on the list, but the proposals included: limiting the Medicare subsidy for the wealthiest beneficiaries (they still get a lot of help from Medicare), slowing the growth in spending for Medicare services modestly (by about 0.4 percent) as the bipartisan Medicare Payment Assessment Commission has recommended, and implementing competitive reforms that could help reduce costs, much as competition in the drug benefit has done. We're also proposing many steps to support more prevention, fewer complications, and higher quality of health care.

These incremental steps, which could be implemented this year, would have the effect of pushing back the date at which the Medicare trustees would say that the program is in financial difficulty by five years. If we take reasonable steps now to address solvency, we can head off drastic changes later, like big changes in eligibility or reductions in benefits.

Sallie, from Utah writes:
Will the date for enrollment be extended?

Dr. Mark McClellan
Sallie, changing the May 15 enrollment deadline for the prescription drug benefit would take action by Congress, and in fact, the Senate is discussing this important question today. While these debates go on, we are focused on one thing: making sure that any beneficiary who is interested in the new drug benefit can get help in taking advantage of it. I've talked to seniors all over the country about the program, and they have lots of questions. That makes sense, because this is a new program.

People had lots of questions and weren't sure what to do 40 years ago when Medicare started. It's important to know, though, that there are lots of places to go right now to get your questions answered about what the program means for you or someone you care about. You can get personalized information on savings, and security, and how to enroll at You can also call 1-800-MEDICARE anytime to get personalized help.

And between now and May 15, there will be literally thousands of events sponsored by seniors' groups and community organizations all over the country to help you enroll. Next week, I'll be traveling myself to some of these events as part of the "Medicare Mobile Office Tour". Recent surveys are showing that seniors who have taken advantage of these resources and found out about the program and enrolled are overwhelmingly saving money, they are overwhelmingly saying it was worth the effort, and that they would recommend that other seniors sign up as well. Right now, you can get personalized help at or at 1-800-MEDICARE with at most a few minutes of wait time. So it's a good time to get in touch with us. Since people typically can save 50 percent or more, and they get protection against high drug costs for life, this isn't a decision that you should delay.

Alice, from NA writes:
I'm on disability with limited income and I receive humana for my new medical insurance due to the medicare reform my question is how come I have to pay $10.00 per prescription for albuterol because humana doesnt cover it. And I take more than one prescription per month and I can't afford it. What can I do about this situation?

Dr. Mark McClellan
Thanks for asking about what we can do to help with your situation. While the vast majority of beneficiaries are saving on their drugs already, we want to make sure the new coverage works as well as possible for everyone. As with any major new benefit, including the Medicare program itself 40 years ago, some of our beneficiaries had some problems initially in using their new coverage. We've been finding and fixing those problems, and I'm very pleased that millions of seniors - the vast majority of people in the program - are now using their coverage smoothly every day.

Prescription drug plans are required to cover medically necessary drugs, and that includes Albuterol if it's not already covered for you under Part B of Medicare. If you have any questions about whether your coverage is working as it should, we want to help you. You can call us at 1-800-MEDICARE. If necessary, we have caseworkers available to work out specific problems. For people with limited incomes, there is also extra help available so that you would pay no more than a few dollars for each prescription. Medicare pays 95 percent on average for 1 in 3 of our beneficiares under the new drug benefit, because many of them are living on limited incomes. To find out about the extra help, you can contact Social Security at or 1-800-SSA-1213.

Mike, from Wayne, PA writes:
With Medicare and Medicaid expected to eat up vast quanities of taxpayer money, what is being done to crack down on the massive amount of waste, fraud and abuse? Are those responsible for the fraud actually fired and prosucuted or are they promoted out of way because of union work rules - like what happens at DOD?By the way, I see you are the better looking McClellan in government service.

Dr. Mark McClellan
Medicare and Medicaid are expected to cost over $600 billion this year, and it's unfortunate but true that some unscrupulous people who try to take advantage of that. This is unconscionable and unacceptable, and we have taken many steps to crack down on fraud and improper payments. As a result of these steps, we cut the "improper payment" rate in Medicare in half last year, saving over $9 billion. We've also started new initiatives to go after fraud in Medicaid, thanks to new funding that we asked for and got from Congress last month. To help make sure we are doing this effectively, our activities are reviewed by the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services and other independent government officials. When we find fraud, we work closely with the Inspector General and with local and Federal law enforcement officials, and we do pursue criminal charges where crimes are committed.

And on the last part of your question, Mike, I guess there are some cases where I just have to say "no comment."

Dr. Mark McClellan
Thanks for the opportunity to answer some of your questions today. I wish we had more time online, but I want to make sure you know that there are lots of places to go for answers and followup on your questions. In particular, I invite you to visit our website at You can also reach us by phone at 1-800-MEDICARE, we have customer service folks available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help you with any of your questions about Prescription Drug Coverage, or any other Medicare questions you may have.

Also, I want to make sure all of you know that there are two months left in the "open enrollment" period for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. Already, in the first two and a half months since coverage began, over 26 million beneficiaries have drug coverage and are using it, and hundreds of thousands more beneficiaries are enrolling every week. As with any new program, people have lots of questions. To find out what it means for you personally, or someone you personally care about, contact us. Costs of coverage are much lower than expected - $130 billion less than had been forecast last year, with premiums starting at under $20 a month. Coverage is better than expected, with a typical beneficiary saving 50 percent or more on basic coverage, and options available that provide even more comprehensive savings. And enrollment is increasing every day as people sign up and save. I hope you or your loved ones will take a look at this voluntary program - it's a critical part of Medicare turning from a program that mainly pays the bills when people get sick, to a program that puts just as much emphasis on helping our beneficiaries stay well and prevent complications.

Thank you all again. It's a pleasure to visit with you.