Thank you for the opportunity to be a part of the Medicare and Medicaid anniversary issue of Modern Healthcare. This publication has been a critical voice for improving the quality and delivery of healthcare to the American people. It has a lot in common with the Medicare program.
Created in July 1965, our nation's Medicare program was a landmark achievement. Since then, Medicare has become a trusted program that has served more than 105 million Americans. Now, after 40 years of providing dependable coverage for doctor visits, hospital stays and surgery, Medicare will offer dependable drug coverage and preventive benefits that can help patients stay healthy.
When Medicare was created, it provided services only to diagnose and treat illness or injury. The value of prevention was not truly understood 40 years ago, and preventive services to keep people healthy were not covered by the program.
Now we know better. We know that a healthy lifestyle means not only doing things like eating right and staying physically active but also taking advantage of prevention and early diagnosis, when treatment is likely to work best.
Through the Medicare Modernization Act, which came about through the leadership of President Bush and bipartisan congressional support, we're making improvements that will bring the benefits of modern, prevention-oriented medicine to Medicare beneficiaries and help them to live longer, healthier lives.
Beginning this year, new Medicare beneficiaries are eligible for a Welcome to Medicare physical exam. The exam is an excellent way to get up-to-date health information through important screenings for disease and receive needed immunizations. It's also an opportunity to talk with a healthcare professional about family health history and learn valuable information about healthy choices.
Another important part of modernizing Medicare is the creation of a prescription-drug benefit. Beginning Jan. 1, 2006, prescription-drug coverage will be available to all Americans with Medicare. Finally, Medicare is going to help seniors pay for the drugs their doctors say they need. It's only common sense that America's healthcare program for seniors and those with disabilities provides coverage for the lifesaving and life-enhancing medicines that are at the core of modern healthcare.
The prescription-drug plans will be available in all parts of the country, and they will cover brand name and generic drugs. Prescriptions can be filled at neighborhood pharmacies and through mail order.
It's an exciting time to be overseeing Medicare. But our work isn't finished. Medicare is taking aggressive steps to reach out to seniors and disabled beneficiaries in the places they live, work and worship to educate them about these new benefits and to help them enroll.
Our 1-800-MEDICARE help line offers one-on-one counseling, as well as consumer publications in wide variety of languages. Beneficiaries and their families can also get information about the new benefits and local resources by visiting our Web site, www.medicare.gov. Information is also being sent directly to seniors' homes. A low-income subsidy application has already been sent to those with limited incomes, and the Medicare & You handbook will be mailed to all Medicare beneficiaries in October.
Medicare is changing with modern times, but there is one important thing that will never change: Medicare is still a safety net that U.S. seniors can count on. People with limited incomes-almost one-third of all Medicare beneficiaries-will get extra help. The extra help will pay for about 85% or more-in most cases 95%-of prescription-drug costs. More than 6 million beneficiaries, who already meet the test for extra help, will be automatically enrolled in a prescription-drug plan. Others who may meet that test are being mailed applications, which they must fill out in order to qualify for that extra help.
The president is calling on all Americans to join in this nationwide effort to raise awareness. We need your help. Seniors will need to make a decision soon about signing up for Medicare's new prescription-drug coverage. Enrollment begins Nov. 15. Now is the time for seniors to begin learning more about the prescription-drug coverage and how it might benefit them. Not only do we need seniors involved, but we also need their families, caretakers, doctors and pharmacists, and entire communities.
At HHS and throughout the federal government, we're going to crisscross America to make sure people know about the new benefit and can make the right choices for themselves.
One-on-one counseling is one of the best ways to make sure that every person with Medicare understands how the new prescription-drug benefit can help them. That is why our outreach efforts include working with community members to reach seniors on the local level. We are also working with state and local governments, community and faith-based groups, employers and unions.
As leaders in the healthcare field, the readers of Modern Healthcare have an important role to play in this effort.
I urge you to learn more about Medicare's new benefits and to help us spread the word to your patients, employees, family, friends and neighbors. Together, we can help Americans get the benefits that can help them stay healthy.
Mike Leavitt is secretary of HHS.