Many of the worst fears about the new Medicare Part D prescription drug
plan appear to have materialized, at least in the first week of the
Throughout the country, the program has endured a tidal wave of complaints
including reports that patients were being charged inappropriate copayments,
pharmacies were unable to confirm eligibility in the program, and drug plans
were failing to have transition policies in effect for the 6 million"
dual eligibles" who ceased having their prescription drugs paid
for by state Medicaid programs and began coverage under the new Medicare
program on January 1.
So severe were the problems that at press time about half the states and
Washington, D.C., had taken emergency action to continue prescription drug
coverage under state financing until problems with the new federal program
could be fixed.
Psychiatrist Andrea Stone, M.D., told Psychiatric News that
problems with the transition have created near pandemonium at the community
mental health center where she works in Westfield, Mass. She is medical
director at Carson Center for Human Services.
"On Wednesday [January 4] I got my first call about a patient who
could not get insulin supplies," she said. "Then we had an
onslaught of patients going to the pharmacy being told they couldn't receive
medications or being told they could have their meds but would have to pay $80
"Their copayments were much more than they were supposed to
be," she continued. "A lot of our patients can't pay that kind of
Stone also told Psychiatric News that many patients were informed
that they needed prior authorization for medications, even though prescription
drug plans were supposed to have transition plans for dual eligibles to
circumvent the need for prior authorization. In other cases, patients were
informed that the pharmacy could not confirm their enrollment in a plan.
"So far it has been stress, confusion, and pandemonium," Stone
She said the problems have been particularly acute for patients being
treated with clozapine. Those patients are typically on clozapine because they
have not responded to other medications, yet are being told they cannot get
their prescription without prior authorization.
"I don't think these [pharmacy benefit] companies understand about
severe and persistent mental illness, and I don't think they understand the
issues around [clozapine]," she said. "They just don't seem to
understand that our patients are not in a position to do all this phone
calling and negotiation."
To ensure that patients continued receiving their medications, Stone said
some pharmacies agreed to supply the medications without assurance that they
would be compensated. And by the end of the second week of January, some of
the problems appeared to be abating, but much still needed to be resolved, she
SAMHSA volunteer doctors and nurses pause for a moment in the infirmary
aboard the cruise ship Holiday. The ship served as a shelter for evacuees
following Hurricane Katrina. Top row, from left: Sharon Muelle, R.N.,
Catherine May, M.D., and Karen Weersing, R.N. Bottom row, from left: Fran
Hudson, R.N., and Lorna Mayo, M.D. Courtesy of Lorna Mayo, M.D.
Stone also expressed special appreciation to APA's Office of Healthcare
Systems and Financing for its ready attention to the problems experienced in
her state. "That office has been invaluable in bringing to CMS's
awareness that there is a big problem," she said. "I've been very
impressed with APA's advocacy."
Irvin (Sam) Muszynski, J.D., director of the Office of Healthcare Systems
and Financing, urged psychiatrists to contact the office as they and their
patients experience problems with Part D (see box on
"We had been very concerned that the implementation of the Part D
benefit for dual-eligible beneficiaries would be very rocky," he said."
That's why we put our monitoring system in place. We can't fix the
problems we don't know about."
Despite reassurances from CMS in the time leading up to January 1, many of
the problems that have been encountered since then were predicted not only by
mental health advocates, but by the government itself. A December 2005 report
by the General Accountability Office predicted that contingency plans by CMS
to ensure that beneficiaries receive medications—such as the
point-of-sale fail-safe mechanism—would not be implemented in time.
"The complex process for transitioning dual-eligible beneficiaries on
a single day with no overlap could create difficulties ensuring that
prescriptions for some members of this vulnerable population are
filled," the report concluded. "The success of the transition will
largely depend on the extent to which dual-eligible beneficiaries (1) are
properly identified and enrolled in PDPs [prescription drug plans], (2) do not
have to change their customary pharmacy, and (3) are enrolled in PDPs that
cover their medications."
In Massachusetts, for example, Gov. Mitt Romney directed the state's
department of mental health to assume the cost of drugs for beneficiaries
unable to receive their medications.
"Given reports about what is happening in pharmacies, Gov. Romney has
made it clear that we have an obligation to make certain that MassHealth
members receive their medication when they need it," said state Medicaid
Director Beth Waldman. "The complexities of Part D make it a difficult
program to implement perfectly. Until the program is operating as expected, we
will step in to ensure that none of our members who need medication will walk
away from the pharmacy without it."
There are about 190,000 Massachusetts residents eligible for both Medicare
and Medicaid, according to the statement.
Waldman said pharmacies will continue attempting to bill the Medicare Part
D plan as the primary payer, but as a fallback they can also bill MassHealth
directly. Waldman said her agency will monitor the progress being made by the
federal government and will recoup what it spends either from private insurers
or the federal government.
In North Dakota, Gov. John Hoeven authorized the state Department of Human
Services' Medicaid program to provide an emergency 30-day supply of
medications to individuals unable to fill prescriptions through Medicare Part
D until January 23, while the federal government and the prescription drug
plans resolve their implementation issues.
"Medicare Part D is a federal benefit, but they are clearly having
difficulty implementing this new program in a timely fashion," Hoeven
said. "Going without prescriptions is not an option for our seniors and
disabled, so the state of North Dakota will step up to ensure that they
continue to get their medications until the federal government resolves the
Andrew Sperling, director of legislative advocacy for the National Alliance
on Mental Illness, said the problems described by Stone have been experienced
nationwide. He highlighted problems experienced by enrollees in United, the
prescription drug plan endorsed by AARP (formerly American Association of
A spokesperson for AARP confirmed that United has experienced"
database problems" affecting "a couple hundred thousand
"This is something AARP is taking very seriously," the
spokesperson said. "It is not isolated to United but is a global
problem. We are reporting these problems to CMS, and CMS has instructed
pharmacists to fill prescriptions for at least 30 days. People should not be
turned away without medications."
Information on Medicare Part D is posted on a Web site sponsored by
APA and other advocacy partners at<www.mentalhealthpartd.org>.
The GAO report, titled "Medicare: Contingency Plans to Address Potential
Problems With the Transition of Dual-Eligible Beneficiaries From Medicaid to
Medicare Drug Coverage," is posted at<www.gao.gov/new.items/d06278r.pdf>.▪