More than 2 million people signed up for the new Medicare Part D prescription program just before the enrollment deadline, bringing total enrollment to over 90% of Medicare beneficiaries, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reports.

Due to a surge in enrollment between May 1 and the May 15 deadline for joining without penalty, more than 38 million seniors are now in the plan, CMS says.

Medicare recipients who did not enroll by May 15 will be unable to enroll in the drug plan until Jan. 1. After that, they will be charged a late-enrollment penalty equal to 1% of the national average premium for each month that they are not enrolled.

Beneficiaries have seen lower-than-expected average premiums because of strong competition among Medicare Part D plans offered by private insurers, CMS says.

In July 2005, CMS actuaries expected the average monthly premium for the prescription plan would be $37. But they now project the average premium in 2006 will be about $23.

“Based on the results of the Part D open enrollment process, Medicare expects to announce another significant downward revision in estimated Part D costs,” CMS said.

CMS officials also said they will take steps to protect low-income Medicare beneficiaries by ensuring they continue to have a choice of no-premium prescription drug plans in 2007.

Meanwhile, America’s Health Insurance Plans says it plans to work with pharmaceutical benefit managers to ensure Part D carriers will pay properly filed claims at least twice a month.

In addition, AHIP’s objective is to assure insurers transmit payments to pharmacies via mail or electronic funds transfer and no later than 30 days after the claims are submitted by the pharmacy.

The industry also will work to promote the use of electronics fund transfer for such payments, AHIP said.