Federal officials are extending the Dec. 7 deadline for three days for some people who have had trouble enrolling in a Medicare prescription drug or private health plan because of the crush of last-minute sign-ups.
A spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid said the "increased flexibility" is limited only to seniors who contact any of several sources of assistance on or before the close of business Wednesday and leave messages because they are unable to get through to sign up. Those groups include: counselors with the government-funded State Health Insurance Information Program (SHIP), and other Medicare-partner organizations such as the Medicare Rights Center, local agencies on aging, and the National Council on Aging. Calls to Medicare's toll-free information line, 800-633-4227 can be made until midnight tonight. If seniors leave messages, then starting on Thursday, those beneficiaries will be called back and will receive assistance. All "call-back enrollments" must be completed by 12:01 a.m. Sunday, the spokesman said.
Seniors can only get extra time if they get on a call-back list. If they reach a live person, today's deadline applies and they should be prepared to make a decision.
"It is critical that people with Medicare who want to make a change in their coverage act today," said Marilyn Tavenner, Medicare's acting administrator. "We are being as flexible as possible but time is of the essence."
But there was some confusion today. Several people who called the Medicare information number on Wednesday for details about the extension said they were told there would be none. As recently as 1 p.m., a recorded message simply reminded callers about Wednesday's deadline: "We are currently experiencing longer than normal wait times as callers decide about their plan choices before the end of the open enrollment period on Dec. 7. If your call is not related to open enrollment, you may wish to call back next week."
A puzzled SHIP counselor in Massachusetts didn't receive instructions on how the extension would work until the early Wednesday afternoon.
"We are committed to providing Medicare beneficiaries with the information and time they need to make these important decisions about their care," said Brian Cook, a Medicare spokesman.
Gina Upchurch, executive director of Senior PharmAssist, which helps seniors in Durham, N.C., choose drug plans and Medicare Advantage health plans, said many seniors have been seeking help in recent days. "Our phones have been ringing off the hook," she said.
Some SHIP counselors said the late rush has been complicated by sporadic problems with the government's "plan finder" website and call center. The website allows a user to type in a Zip code, drugs, and preferred pharmacy, and the plan finder produces a list of plans available in the area that cover those drugs.
But Medicare officials denied that any technical glitches affected the decision to extend the enrollment period. However, officials assured SHIP counselors in e-mails on Monday and Tuesday that website problems would be resolved.
More people enrolled on Monday than on any other day since enrollment for 2012 plans began Oct. 15, according to Medicare officials.
The 2010 health law mandated that Medicare move up the traditional enrollment season. In the past, beneficiaries had until Dec. 31 to make their choices.
Upchurch said that in the past few days, about two dozen appointments at Senior PharmAssist were canceled when counselors couldn't use the plan finder because it was slow or not functional at times.
In Arlington, Va., SHIP counselor John Glowacky encountered similar problems when he tried to help his clients.
"Yesterday the website was absolutely worthless," he said Tuesday evening. "You couldn't do your job. Today was smooth sailing, and we'll see what tomorrow brings."
But some seniors' advocates said all beneficiaries should be entitled to the extra enrollment time.
"There ought to be recourse across the board, not just for those who were fortunate enough to find assistance from SHIPs," said Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a consumer group based in Conn.
Contact Susan Jaffe at Jaffe.firstname.lastname@example.org