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State wants Medicare payback.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

SALEM - Two of Oregon's top officials are leaning on the federal government to straighten out problems with Medicare's new prescription drug program for seniors.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski plans to meet this morning with Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt at the state Capitol to press him on fixing the system and repaying Oregon for the costs it volunteered to pick up on behalf of seniors who have been denied coverage under the new federal Medicare prescription drug benefit.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is lending his clout to the effort. He sent a letter to Leavitt on Wednesday calling on the federal government to ``make our state whole'' and fix the new program's shortcomings.

``I want the federal government to stop sticking it to my state, that's doing the right thing,'' he said in an interview.

Kulongoski last week pledged to seniors that the state would pick up the cost for 30 days of prescription drugs for seniors who weren't otherwise able to receive the drugs they were promised under the Medicare program. Spokesman Lonn Hocklin said the governor would be asking Leavitt to see that the federal government repay that cost, estimated at $1.5 million.

Fourteen Democratic governors on Tuesday sent to President Bush a letter demanding federal reimbursement for the costs - projected at hundreds of millions of dollars - for their states' costs in providing similar drug coverage.

The expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs, launched Jan. 3, represents the program's biggest change since it began in 1965. The drug program has had a rocky start. Seniors have been frustrated and angry at the confusion of signing up and at the $250 deductibles. Pharmacists initially had to spend hours on the phone or at their computers, trying to work out payment with the federal government and the participating insurance companies.

Tony Taylor, owner and pharmacist at Harrisburg Pharmacy, said the initial headaches have largely subsided.

``I think things are really smoothing out,'' he said.

In the first days, seniors were discovering they had been signed up for two or more insurance plans, since the state automatically enrolled Oregon Health Plan participants and relatives often did the same.

Taylor said pharmacists such as himself are figuring out how to deal with the forms that different insurance companies require.

Since the launch of the drug benefit, close to 10,000 of the 54,000 Oregonians who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid - known as "dual-eligibles" - have had difficulty accessing medication, according to the Kulongoski administration. State officials said the main reason was pharmacies' inability to verify that a patient is enrolled in one of the federal Medicare Prescription Drug Plans or that the patient is eligible for low-income subsidy assistance.

Wyden said the bad first-impression by the Medicare drug program will take a lot to overcome. He got a dose of that during a recent swing through Oregon for 21 town meetings. The Eugene meeting drew close to 200 people. ``It's bedlam out there,'' he said. ``This comes up everywhere. People are incredibly frustrated, and understandably so.''
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Title Annotation:Government; Kulongoski will meet with the Health and Human Services secretary over problems in the prescription drug program
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 19, 2006
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