Pawlenty aims to extend emergency Medicare help for seniorsby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the federal government have reached an agreement to ensure that low-income Minnesota seniors continue to get their medicine in the coming weeks.
Disarray in the new Medicare prescription drug program left many seniors unable to pay for their medicine in the program's first days. The governor issued an emergency executive order authorizing state payments for medicine, but it was set to expire on Friday night. Pawlenty says the state has now applied for a federal government waiver to ensure those payments continue.
St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty said he was so concerned about the Friday night deadline that he was on the verge of calling a special session to address the issue. That won't have to happen now that the federal government has given the state the authority to continue paying the drug costs thru March 8.
Under the agreement, the federal government will pay Minnesota for the costs. Pawlenty issued an executive order in January to make sure the 100,000 low income Minnesotans who were enrolled in both Medicare and the state run Medicaid plan would get their medicine. The problem is the order was set to expire and under state law he couldn't issue another one.
Pawlenty said it was important to do something to address the issue.
"Even if it is a relatively small number of people who are having these problems, when they are in need of medicne is that is potentially life saving, certainly health maintaining, we don't want to have people turned away. So taking this action is very important for them and Minnesota," Pawlenty said.
The main problem in Minnesota and other states is that Medicare's computer system was not listing some of their residents as low income. That meant some people weren't getting their drugs at the expected discounts.
Initially, pharmacists struggled to navigate the computer system and had difficulty figuring out which plan a senior was enrolled in. Some customers left the pharmacy without their medicine. In other cases, pharmacists provided the medicine and hoped they would get paid. Even though the number of claims have dropped significantly since Pawlenty first took action in January, many worried people would go without drugs when the order expired on Friday night.
Before Pawlenty's announcement things were busy at the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging's call center in St. Paul. About 18 people talked with seniors about the new medicare drug benefit.
Dawn Simonson, the organization's executive director, was worried the center would be flooded with phone calls again on Saturday if the executive order was not renewed.
"People are getting drugs for chronic illness, they're getting drugs to help them with things with a quality of life so if they walk away without their drugs it could be threatening to their health, it could be threatenig to their safety and even threatening to their life," she said.
Pharmacists welcomed the agreement between the state and the federal govenrment. Julie Johnson, with the Minnesota Pharmacists Association, says she's relieved that her members will continue to get paid even though the computer problems haven't been fixed. She says many pharmacists have extended credit and provided drugs to customers when the problems with the benefit first started in January. She said many of her members were unwilling and unable to continue that practice if the order ran out.
"Our people are overextended. They're overextended at the bank. They're overextended at their wholesalers. There wasn't a way for the pharmacists to continue to do that so it was extremely critical for the governor find a way either by holding a special session or by this waiver but we're extremely as happy as anybody that they didn't have to call a special session but found another way," Johnson said.
It isn't clear if Medicare's computer problems will be solved by March 8. If the problems continue, the state could apply for another waiver. Since the state Legislature will be back in session on March 1, it's possible state lawmakers could take some action to ensure that the state continues to pay for drugs until the computer glitch is fixed.
- All Things Considered, 02/14/2006, 5:46 p.m.