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Walgreens Once Again Offers Free Prescriptions to Backlogged Enrollees

December 31, 2013

With an estimated 2 million Americans having signed up for private health insurance plans on the federal and state exchanges, the Affordable Care Act is now making real progress towards the goal of 7 million new enrollees by the end of 2014. But as the Washington Post cautions, Obamacare's first real test comes on January 1 when pharmacies, emergency rooms and doctors' offices will have their initial encounters with newly insured patients. That's why Walgreen Co., the nation's largest drug store chain, announced Monday it will provide a month of prescriptions to those customers who do not yet have a plan identification number.
If that policy sounds familiar, it should. Back in January 2006, Walgreens, CVS and other pharmacies along with dozens of states scrambled to fill prescriptions for millions of seniors who coverage was lost or in limbo during the catastrophic rollout of President Bush's new Medicare Part D drug plan.
As Reuters reported on Monday, Walgreen's has taken the steps to help ensure customers don't experience any interruption in their medications:

Customers who have enrolled in Obamacare, but don't have an ID yet from an insurer, can bring proof of their enrollment from now through the end of January to a Walgreen's pharmacy.
The pharmacy staff will verify their enrollment and provide up to a month of generic medication at no upfront cost, the company said in a statement.
As soon as the customer receives the ID number, Walgreen will process the insurance claim and the customer at that time may be responsible for any co-pay, Walgreen spokeswoman Markeisha Marshall said.

Americans can be forgiven if it seems like history is repeating. In January 2006, the bungled launch of the Medicare Rx plan left millions forced to pay up front for--or simply unable to get-drugs they received for free just days before. As the Wall Street Journal ("Glitches Mar Launch of Medicare Drug Plan") reported on January 4, 2006:

Several drugstore chains, including Walgreen Co. (WAG -1.05%) and CVS Corp. (cvs -0.38%) , say that the national computerized system for verifying benefits has been unable to process requests for thousands of seniors who say they should be covered. And pharmacists say that when they attempt to verify coverage directly with the health insurers and pharmacy benefit managers that administer the plans, they frequently get repeat busy signals. Both pharmacies were issuing free two- and three-day supplies of medication to carry over customers who didn't have proof of coverage.

Recently, Ezra Klein provided a refresher for those with short memories of the Medicare Rx program:

In 2006, the bill went into effect. It was a disaster. Computer systems didn't communicate with one another. Seniors were confused. Some of the poorest and sickest enrollees -- "dual eligibles" who qualify for aid under both Medicare and Medicaid -- weren't able to get their drugs. It was so bad that in his 2006 State of the Union address, Bush "said nothing about the new Medicare prescription drug program, an initiative Republicans once hoped to trumpet but has angered many seniors in its implementation," reported the Washington Post.

As the Post also reported in January 2006, "Two weeks into the new Medicare prescription drug program, many of the nation's sickest and poorest elderly and disabled people are being turned away or overcharged at pharmacies, prompting more than a dozen states to declare health emergencies and pay for their life-saving medicines." Roughly 6.4 million seniors who just days earlier had gotten their prescriptions for free faced the prospect of going without because of untrained pharmacists and computer glitches. By January 16th, 2006, the New York Times explained, many states (most of them led by Democrats) came to their rescue:

About 20 states, including California, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and all of New England, have announced that they will help low-income people by paying drug claims that should have been paid by the federal Medicare program.

Among the governors taking action were future Obamacare foes Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee, who declared a health emergency in his state of Arkansas. The fiasco prompted the Bush administration to take drastic measures:

With tens of thousands of people unable to get medicines promised by Medicare, the Bush administration has told insurers that they must provide a 30-day supply of any drug that a beneficiary was previously taking, and it said that poor people must not be charged more than $5 for a covered drug.

It's no wonder future House Speaker John Boehner admitted, "The implementation of the Medicare plan has been horrendous."
It's also why Walgreen's then as now decided to come to its customers' rescue.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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