Medicare triples customer phone support

HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and CMS Administrator Mark B. McClellan, M.D., Ph.D. today announced that Medicare has more than tripled the number of customer service representatives available through its toll-free information line, 1-800-MEDICARE, which also received a record number of calls on Monday.

Secretary Thompson said the 24-hour a day, seven-day-a-week hotline has hired 1,000 additional trained customer service representatives, for a total of nearly 1,400, in order to handle the rapidly rising number of calls generated by the new Medicare law. The expansion of the call center is also being done to handle the anticipated influx of calls generated by the availability of drug discount cards beginning May 3, as well as the ongoing addition of new prescription drug and preventive care benefits being added to Medicare in the next two years.

HHS is encouraging people with Medicare to call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) or go to www.Medicare.gov for personalized assistance in comparing drug discount cards or to learn about other benefits being offered under the new law.

"Personalized help in choosing a drug discount card will be a phone call away," Secretary Thompson said. "We're expanding our call centers and providing a price comparison tool on our Web site so that seniors can receive personalized assistance in choosing a drug discount card that works best for them. These cards will provide seniors with real savings on their prescription medicines. We want to help beneficiaries shop to compare, and make an informed decision."

Call volume already has increased 150 percent since April of 2003, with over 3 million calls in the first four months of 2004 alone. This past Monday, the hotline received an all-time record high of 111,904 calls. Medicare officials estimate that 1-800-MEDICARE will receive nearly 13 million phone calls in 2004, up from fewer than 6 million in 2003.

Earlier this year HHS also increased funding for the State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIPs), which provide one-on-one assistance to Medicare beneficiaries through trained counselors who are provided training from CMS. The added funding was to meet the increased demand for information about the new Medicare benefits now available.

"CMS is committed to making sure that Medicare beneficiaries get the information they need to make the best decisions in their health care," said Dr. McClellan. "The information available at 1-800-MEDICARE and www.medicare.gov, supplemented with one-on-one information beneficiaries can get at their local SHIPS and other local organizations that work with seniors will help them be some of the best informed health care consumers in the nation today."

In addition to an increased call volume, the topics of the questions have changed with the top five questions now focusing on the discount card program. The number one question is about the $600 credit on the discount card for low-income beneficiaries, with questions about card sponsors a close second. Rounding out the top five are questions about how to enroll in the drug card program, the cost of the drug card, and a general overview about the program.

The six call centers provide information about Medicare and the services that beneficiaries get from Medicare in English, Spanish and TDD for the hearing impaired. To help them in choosing a new Medicare-approved discount drug card, callers will choose the language they prefer through a voice-prompt system, and then be connected directly to a person who will help them find the card to fit their individual needs and location. Callers also have the option to use the voice-prompt system to get the answers they need from recorded information.

Among many services, counselors at the toll-free line will be able to help Medicare beneficiaries and their family members compare the prices of drugs being offered through the new Medicare-endorsed discount cards that will be available in May as well as providing names of participating drug stores in their areas. Questions that cannot be answered by the customer service representative right away will be referred to the call center's research staff for resolution. Call center operators will also be able to refer callers to discount drug card sponsors and local state health insurance assistance programs for additional information and help. In addition to being trained to answer questions on the new Medicare law, customer service representatives can also mail printed materials to callers who request it.

1-800-MEDICARE is just one of the information resources available to help Medicare beneficiaries and their families choose a discount drug card, nursing home, home health agency, health plan or other Medicare-related health care service. The award winning www.medicare.gov has the same information available at an Internet user's fingertips and the CMS recently upgraded the Web site to increase the capacity to handle additional information and usage.

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