Bush Admin. Aims to Boost Minority Enrollment For Medicare Drug Plan

One of every six Medicare beneficiaries is black or Hispanic, and many of them lack prescription drug coverage. That's created some unusual allies as the Bush administration tries to boost enrollment in the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Two years ago, the head of the NAACP called for Bush's defeat in his re-election bid. Now, the NAACP is courting celebrities such as Bill Cosby to promote the program and inviting Medicare officials to send their flashy, high-tech bus to black churches so counselors can help beneficiaries wade through all their options.

NAACP officials said they think the drug benefit can be improved. But even as it stands now, they say, it will help poor seniors and the disabled.

"We have to separate the benefit from the politics and the administration, and take it for what it is: It's access to prescription drugs for people who didn't have it before," said Myisha Patterson, the NAACP's national health coordinator.

Nationally, minority groups view the benefit in a more negative light than whites, polls show.

A recent ABC/Washington Post poll indicated whites are evenly divided about the merits of the program. But among nonwhites, a gap emerges — 36 percent approve and 54 percent disapprove. The disapproval is even greater if you just consider blacks — 63 percent.

Despite their negative feelings about the program, minorities seem to be signing up at the same rate as whites.

About 55 percent of the whites, blacks and Hispanics eligible for the program have enrolled voluntarily, said Peter Ashkenaz, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That does not include beneficiaries who were automatically enrolled because of their previous participation in Medicaid.

Adolph Falcon, a vice president at the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, said his organization is also helping the administration with its outreach. It doesn't consider the drug benefit a political issue.

"We're the group for whom this will have the biggest impact," he said. "We've been the group least likely to have medication for the treatment of chronic illnesses."

The Center on an Aging Society, part of Georgetown University, found that among older adults with chronic conditions, 52 percent of whites had prescription drug coverage. That number dropped to 39 percent for blacks and 31 percent for Hispanics.

The key to enrolling Hispanic beneficiaries is personal attention, Falcon said.

"Once they sit down with somebody they're able to trust and they bring their medications with them, they're really able to walk through it and make a decision that's best for them," Falcon said.

President Bush's trip to Annandale, Va., on Wednesday was in keeping with the concept of reaching out to minority groups. He visited a largely Asian-American audience at Northern Virginia Community College. Some in the crowd who don't speak English wore headphones that fed them a translation.

"I'm trying to show that our government is reaching out to people from all walks of life in all neighborhoods," Bush said.

Among the racial and ethnic groups tracked by CMS when it comes to enrollment, the numbers are particularly strong for Asian-American enrollment, with about 675,000 out of 900,000 having drug coverage through a Medicare plan or their former employer.

Overall, about 1,000 events a week are taking place around the country designed to generate enrollment in the drug benefit, said Kathleen Harrington, director of external affairs for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The agency has asked churches, civic organizations and advocacy groups such as the NAACP to organize many of those events.

"In some of these communities we've faced some culture barriers where there is a lack of trust in government, a natural suspicion, in addition to language barriers," Harrington said. "That's why we've established these partnerships with people who have the trust of the community."

Harrington said it's not been difficult bridging political differences with groups like the NAACP.

"They really see this as an opportunity to really start to close the health disparities gap that has been sadly present," she said. "Part D is the beginning of that effort."

The NAACP's Patterson said the organization has developed "a fresh relationship" with the administration in the past year. The organization's philosophy now is to let a particular issue drive the cooperation or lack thereof.

"We'll challenge them when we need to challenge them and we'll work with them when we need to work with them" she said.