Just over 10 years ago, the Medicare Part D prescription drug program went into effect. Shortly thereafter, Legal Aid and our non-profit and law firm partners went into action to help Medicare beneficiaries access this benefit. A decade later, this project is still helping hundreds of low-income individuals who are elderly or struggle with disabilities to access life-saving medications.
The Medicare Part D program gave millions of Medicare enrollees financial assistance toward purchasing their prescription drugs for the first time in the program’s history. Drug prices, like the rest of health care costs, have steadily risen over the years, and before the Medicare Part D program, Medicare enrollees were often unable to afford the medications they need to stay healthy.
Although Part D promised to make drugs more affordable, its complicated design also creates significant hardships in fully accessing the program. Unlike traditional Medicare’s hospital and medical coverage, which utilizes a single-payer system, Medicare Part D consists of dozens of private prescription drug companies, each of which have their own list of covered medications and restrictions. Medicare recipients must choose a plan they think will best meet their drug needs, and navigating this thicket of plans proved to be a daunting task. As full implementation of Part D approached, it was clear that many people in the District would need assistance choosing a drug plan.
To provide this needed assistance, Legal Aid launched a Medicare Part D project in late 2005. Since then, each year, Legal Aid and their partner Whitman-Walker Health, train dozens of pro bono attorneys with the support of Hogan Lovells and Arnold and Porter Kaye Scholer. Then these pro bono attorneys, along with Legal Aid and Whitman-Walker staff, assist hundreds of people every year in clinics organized throughout the city. Over the past ten years, we have saved our clients thousands of dollars by switching their plans during the annual open enrollment periods.
This work – in fact, all of our public benefits work – is even more important now given the uncertain future of safety net programs under the new administration. Although the president vowed to “protect Medicare” on the campaign trail, House Speaker Paul Ryan has long sought to privatize Medicare. Furthermore, while the American Health Care Act (repealing the Affordable Care Act) recently failed to pass the House, its introduction and support from the White House (combined with the Administration’s proposed FY 2018 budget) demonstrate a desire to push for substantial cuts across the medical and social safety net.
So as we close the chapter on the first 10 years of Legal Aid’s Medicare Part D project and look toward the future, we want to focus not only on the continued success of the project, but also on the need to defend the entire safety-net now more than ever.