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The choice seniors face

December 22, 1998

As most Marylanders consider which gifts they'll buy in the last few days before Christmas, a group of their fellow citizens faces a much more difficult choice. In the next two weeks, 42,000 rural citizens will lose health-maintenance organization benefits and must make choices that could affect their health and finances for years to come.

As reported by The Herald-Mail in late November, health-maintenance organizations had sought an increase in the amount they were being reimbursed for seniors' medical care.

When the hike was denied by the Health Care Financing Administration, two of the three HMOs serving this area announced their intention to pull out of the market by Jan. 1. A third company, Medi-Care First, will remain, but its services will cost an additional $75 per month and doesn't provide full prescription coverage, which can run up to $150 per month, depending on the policy.

Seniors could opt to go with traditional Medicare coverage, but this week The Associated Press reported that a federal study found that the basic program covers less than half the medical costs of those enrolled in it.

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For the short term, seniors have to make the best of a bad situation and choose the combination of policies that best meets their needs. Counseling is available through the Washington County Commission on Aging at 301-790-0275, and we urge anyone who's not sure what to do to seek their advice.

For the long term, the state needs to look at how to provide coverage to seniors on fixed incomes so that small problems aren't ignored until they become major medical woes which are more costly to treat. Unfortunately, that won't be cheap.

The Associated Press reports that a plan to raise the income-eligibility limit for the state's prescription-assistance program would be costly, because so many seniors live at or near the poverty line. And medical care for seniors isn't easy to deliver in a cost-effective way; if it were, the HMOs wouldn't be bailing out. But just because the answers aren't easy to find doesn't mean that citizens or lawmakers don't have to try, and doing so should be a top priority for the 1999 General Assembly session.

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