It’s still early in the nationwide push to get millions of low-income Medicare beneficiaries to sign up for the subsidy that could cover the bulk of their prescription drug expenses. But, as many of us expected, applications are coming in at a trickle.

The low-income subsidy is one of the most positive aspects of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit (aka, Medicare Part D). Of the 43 million Medicare beneficiaries, up to seven million may be eligible for the generous, taxpayer-financed subsidies of most of their drug costs. However, they must apply for the subsidy, navigate the application form, meet the income and asset tests set by Congress, and later sign up for the drug benefit and pick a drug plan.

Experience from other subsidy programs tells us that it’s tough to get low-income seniors to apply for benefits. They are hard to reach and risk adverse. They don’t like the idea of signing up for what is seen as a welfare benefit. In addition, they are often struggling with multiple health issues and low health literacy. Ultimately, you can lead people to a subsidy but you can’t make them take it.

The Medicare savings programs are a good case in point. For low-income Medicare beneficiaries who do not otherwise qualify for full Medicaid benefits, the feds mandate that state Medicaid programs pay some or all of the individual’s Medicare cost sharing. But, after years of outreach efforts, perhaps only 30 percent of eligible beneficiaries are enrolled.

Inside the Beltway, a host of players is worried that signup for the low-income subsidy will be painfully slow. Even putting aside the primary objective of ensuring access to needed medications, response to the low-income subsidy will drive perceptions of whether Part D is a success or failure.

Like virtually every aspect of Medicare Part D, it will take time, effort, money, creativity, partnerships, luck, and patience to make the low-income subsidy a success. However, whether we like it or not, this is a public program, operating in a media and politically driven fish bowl – and expectation are foolishly unrealistic. We need to show patience, but ultimately perceptions will rule reality. And if, come January 2006, only a small portion of eligible beneficiaries sign up for the subsidy, expect a lively blame game.

To read other stories on the Medicare drug benefit, click here.