Prescription for confusion

Seniors baffled by Medicare drug program options

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Lost in a barrage of new terminology and seemingly endless plan options, some Moffat County senior citizens say long-awaited Medicare prescription coverage may be more trouble than it's worth.

"I'd just as soon pay for my own medications and leave the whole thing alone, but I'm not. I'm going to sign up for the program," said 81-year-old Craig resident Margaret Thompson.

Thompson knows that if she doesn't sign up for Medicare's prescription drug coverage, she'll have to pay nearly $250 a month for her medications. But, she isn't sure where to start, which plan to choose or how to enroll.

"I haven't gone into it because I didn't understand it to begin with," she said.

Enrollment opened Tuesday for a Medicare-subsidized prescription drug plan touted as the program's biggest expansion since its creation in 1965.

Seniors must contact an independent insurance company, such as PacifiCare, Aetna, Humana or United Health Group, to sign up for prescription drug benefits. They must choose from nearly 40 plans, each covering different types of medication. And each plan comes with a different price.

"You almost have to work with someone individually to figure out what program is the best," said Thompson, one of 43 million people in the nation eligible for Medicare benefits.

Federal officials say the program can cut in half a senior's average $2,240 yearly drug costs. But terms such a "tiered co-payments" and "creditable coverage" are making it difficult for seniors to find those savings.

President George Bush, promoting the plan Saturday, called it "the greatest advance in health care for seniors in 40 years." Yet a Kaiser Family Foundation poll reported 65 percent of those ages 65 and older don't understand the coverage options.

There have been few educational programs about the changes in Craig, so seniors are making their decisions based on brochures mailed by insurance companies and advice from friends and family members.

"It's terrible," said Connie Adams, office manager at Sunset Meadows, a senior living center. "Nobody knows what to do or when to do it."

Joe Kenady, pharmacy manager at City Market, said he's been inundated with calls from seniors asking about the program.

"There is too much information and too many plans for an intelligent person to make a good decision, let alone those not adept at research and technology," he said. "Seniors are being directed to Web sites for information, yet a high number of seniors have never been online."

Whether they understand the program, seniors are urged to enroll in the program quickly or face "penalties" for not enrolling.

But Kmart's pharmacy manager Ron Simones said seniors shouldn't worry about the penalties.

"You really don't lose anything by waiting if you're not sure," he said.

Simones and other pharmacists aren't allowed to help seniors choose a plan, but they are providing literature they hope will help their customers make a decision.

City Market is showing an educational video as well as providing brochures.

"The government didn't do a very good job educating seniors about this program," Simones said.

Rather than wade through the different plans, Craig resident Imogene Fitzgerald, 84, said she'll stick with what she has -- coverage as a veteran's widow.

Even if she can save money through Medicare's program, she said she's not ready to decipher the plan.

Allowing different companies to provide benefits under the plan creates a competitive environment that will keep down costs for consumers, Bush said Saturday.

Subsidizing Medicare prescription drug coverage will cost the federal government $724 billion over 10 years.

"This new coverage will offer more and better health care choices than ever before," Bush said. "That means seniors can save more and get the coverage they want -- not a 'one size fits all' plan that does not meet their needs."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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