Federal Officials To Fix Problems With Medicare Information Phone Line

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CMS has improved 1-800-Medicare, a toll-free telephone line that beneficiaries can call for information on the prescription drug benefit, but the agency needs to address some serious problems that remain before the next annual enrollment period begins on Nov. 15, advocates for seniors and lawmakers said on Thursday during a hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, CQ HealthBeat reports. CMS has five call centers nationwide for the telephone line, which served about 30 million callers in 2007.

During the hearing, advocates cited a number of problems with the telephone line, such as long wait times and customer service representatives who provide incorrect information. In addition, advocates said that the telephone line uses a set of menu options that can confuse callers and often drops calls. Advocates also said that callers often cannot hear the information provided because of static and that customer service representatives refer about one-fourth of questions to "benefit specialists" who return calls but do not leave return telephone numbers.

According to Senate Special Committee on Aging ranking member Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), an investigation he conducted found that the telephone line has wait times as long as one hour during high-volume periods and that customer service representatives use "jargon filled and error-ridden scripts." Smith said that his staff conducted about 500 test calls to the telephone line and examined hundreds of complaints from beneficiaries, as well as reports from CMS, the Government Accountability Office and the HHS Office of Inspector General.

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CMS Response

CMS Acting Administrator Kerry Weems said that the agency plans to make several improvements to the telephone line within the next year, such as a "virtual callback option" that would allow callers to receive a return call and maintain their place in queue, and improved training for customer service representatives.

In response to a question from Smith about whether CMS had adequate funds to conduct "sufficient and robust training" for customer service representatives, Weems said that Congress during the last four years had allocated $928 million less than President Bush requested for the agency's operational budget, which includes funds for the telephone line (Carey, CQ HealthBeat, 9/11).

Reprinted with permission from kaisernetwork.org. You can view the entire Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, search the archives, and sign up for email delivery at kaisernetwork.org/email . The Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report is published for kaisernetwork.org, a free service of The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. © 2007 Advisory Board Company and Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.

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