Medicare's toll-free telephone line, one of the main vehicles for disseminating information about new prescription-drug benefits and drug-discount cards, gives accurate answers...

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WASHINGTON — Medicare’s toll-free telephone line, one of the main vehicles for disseminating information about new prescription-drug benefits and drug-discount cards, gives accurate answers less than two-thirds of the time, congressional investigators say.

In a test of the service, the investigators, from the Government Accountability Office, found that 29 percent of callers received inaccurate answers, while 10 percent received no answers at all.

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Use of the phone line is expected to soar in coming months as the elderly sort through a complex array of new insurance options and benefits.

Discount cards, available since May, can significantly reduce drug costs. But many beneficiaries hesitated to sign up, saying they were puzzled by the multiplicity of options. A government Web site compares drug prices under various cards, but many beneficiaries say they are not adept at using computers and find the site difficult to navigate.

In response, Bush administration officials say that beneficiaries can receive all the information they need by calling 800-MEDICARE (633-4227). But the people who answer those calls are themselves often confused, the Government Accountability Office said, in an evaluation required by Congress under the new law.

“We found that 6 out of 10 calls were answered accurately, 3 out of 10 calls were answered inaccurately and we were not able to get a response for 1 out of 10 calls,” the report stated.

800-MEDICARE (633-4227).

In another recent report, the accountability office found that Medicare provided even less accurate information to doctors who inquired about the proper way to bill for treating Medicare patients.

In response to 300 test calls, the GAO said, customer-service representatives gave correct and complete responses to only 4 percent of the billing questions. About 54 percent of the answers were simply wrong, and 42 percent were incomplete or partly correct, it said.

The toll-free number for beneficiaries received 16.5 million calls in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Federal officials encouraged people to call, but now cite the deluge of calls to explain why they were unable to give accurate answers.

“We were faced with an unprecedented volume of calls about a new part of the Medicare program that required new training efforts and many new customer-service representatives,” said Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “We believe we responded as well as we reasonably could given the unique and demanding circumstances.”

The 800-MEDICARE line is run for the government, under contract, by Pearson Government Solutions, a unit of Pearson PLC, a $7 billion international media company based in London.

David Hakensen, a spokesman for Pearson, said the federal government had told him not to discuss the quality of service. McClellan said the government had increased the training of customer-service representatives so they would give more accurate answers.

Employees of the accountability office placed 420 calls to the toll-free line. They posed six questions of the type commonly asked by beneficiaries. Each was asked 70 times.

In an example, callers asked if Medicare would pay for power wheelchairs. The answer depends, in part, on whether a beneficiary has enough upper body strength, or “trunk strength,” to propel a manual wheelchair.

But a Medicare operator “incorrectly explained that Medicare would cover a power wheelchair only if a beneficiary had adequate space to put it in the trunk of his car,” the report said.