With only eight months to go before the first Medicare+Choice information fair, HCFA is ready to roll out the first phase of its public awareness campaign, even with reduced funding available for the project.
The initial stage of the program will focus on informing beneficiaries about the basics of the new program with emphasis on the fact that seniors can remain in the traditional fee-for-service Medicare option if they choose, said HCFA spokesman Chris Peacock.
The information campaign was required as part of the 1997 federal balanced-budget act that also created the Medicare+Choice program. The law calls for a November 1998 "special information campaign" that will serve as a sort of dry run for the yearly "Medicare+Choice Health Information Fairs" that will begin in November 1999.
The information fairs will coincide with the annual open-enrollment periods. The way Congress envisioned the enrollment periods, seniors will be able to choose from among a menu of options, including several managed-care plans, provider-sponsored organizations, traditional Medicare fee-for-service and medical savings accounts.
Congress also mandated that HCFA offer a toll-free help line for seniors with questions.
To pay for all this, Congress said HCFA could charge a fee to managed-care plans that enroll Medicare beneficiaries. According to the budget act, HCFA could collect a maximum of $200 million in fiscal 1998, $150 million in fiscal 1999 and $100 million each year thereafter.
But managed-care plans balked, arguing successfully to Congress that they enroll less than 20% of all seniors and therefore shouldn't be required to pay for an information campaign that would benefit all seniors. HCFA said that without the full $200 million it would be hard pressed to get information out to all seniors and would have trouble getting the toll-free phone line up and running.
Congress sided with the managed-care plans and cut the amount of the fee so it would generate only $95 million in fiscal 1998. The Clinton administration again called for the full $150 million in its fiscal 1999 budget released earlier this month.
But according to Peacock, the funding isn't as big a problem as feared.
"We feel pretty good that we will be able to do most of what we need to" by spending just $95 million, he said.
To help get its message out, HCFA has contracted with several public relations firms. The first stage of the information campaign, set to be unveiled within the next month, will be run with the help of a number of seniors groups, including the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Council on the Aging. The groups will distribute pamphlets and run educational seminars for seniors, Peacock said.
According to Steve Hahn, a media liaison with the AARP, the group has commissioned several studies designed to gauge the level of seniors' understanding of Medicare+Choice. While the studies are not complete, Hahn said the preliminary results show "there is an even bigger problem than you would think."