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Health
HHS secretary promotes Medicare drug benefit


The federal government hopes to enroll every eligible Native American in the new Medicare prescription drug program, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said on Tuesday.

Leavitt is currently on a nationwide bus tour to promote the program to senior citizens across America. He took a break to speak at the 50th anniversary ceremony of the federal law that transferred the Indian Health Service to his department, which doesn't want to leave tribal members behind.

"We must not allow a single member," he said at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., "to miss out on this benefit."

Leavitt said seniors who sign up will be able to participate in the program starting in January 2006. The first enrollment period runs from November 15, 2005, to May 15, 2006. People who sign up later will still be eligible but will pay a premium.

According to the National Indian Health Board, which has started a website to disseminate information about Medicare, an estimated 120,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives over the age of 65 live in the U.S. These seniors would be eligible to have a good portion -- or more, depending on income level -- of their prescription drug costs paid by Medicare.

NIHB and other tribal organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians, have taken an active interest in promoting the benefit. They view Medicare as a way to supplement IHS programs, which have been typically underfunded.

Indian seniors aren't the only ones affected by the new program. In May, IHS sent a letter to tribal leaders about participating in the program through their health centers and pharmacies. Tribes will need to make some changes in order to bill Medicare for the prescription drugs.

The drug benefit was authorized by the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003. It is one of the Bush administration's major domestic policy initiatives.

The program is open to all Medicare beneficiaries regardless of income. But it will bring more benefits to low-income seniors, many of whom are Native American, and those whose drug costs exceed $5,100 a year. For others, the program will cover about three-quarters of prescription drug costs up to $2,250 a year.

Low-income seniors don't have to pay to participate in the program. Others will have to pay monthly premium of about $37.

Yesterday's ceremony for the IHS was held to mark the 50 years since the passage of the Transfer Act, which removed Indian health care from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Dr. Allan Rhoads, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and the first Indian director of the agency, heralded the transfer as a significant change in the way of life for Indian people.

The act, he said, established IHS "to really be an advocate for Indian people."

Dr. Charles Grim, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the current IHS director, said the health status of American Indians and Alaska Natives has improved significantly in the past 50 years.

Relevant Links:
American Indian/Alaska Native Resource Center for Medicare Information - http://www.aianmedicare.org
Medicare Reform - http://www.cms.hhs.gov/medicarereform
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services - http://www.cms.hhs.gov/partnerships
Medicare - http://www.medicare.gov
Indian Health Service - http://www.ihs.gov
National Indian Health Board - http://www.nihb.org