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Medicare drug cards challenge applicants

July 04, 2004|by WANDA T. WILLIAMS

wandaw@herald-mail.com

The new Medicare prescription drug card continues to present challenges for area seniors and some health professionals who said getting the card and understanding how it works hasn't been without a few kinks.

Katrina Eversole, health insurance advocate for the Washington County Commission on Aging, said four out of five phone calls and office visits are from seniors who need assistance obtaining the new drug card or other forms of medical assistance.

"It can be a complicated process," Eversole said.

The only senior health insurance counselor on staff, Eversole said phone calls went from about 100 to nearly 150 calls a month since advertisements for the Medicare drug card started in April.

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Eversole said the drug card is the first phase of the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003. The national drug program was launched to reduce prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries who qualify. Applicants may apply for the card over the phone by calling the Medicare hot line or online at www.medicare.gov.

Medicare beneficiaries such as Dottie Henson of Hagerstown said she tried calling Medicare's toll-free hot line to request her new drug card in May. She said it took hours to get through, and she found the card registration process frustrating.

"I called and they put you on hold, or you're told to press a lot of options," the 77-year-old retired Washington County Hospital nurse said.

And while the drug plan offers discounts for a variety of drugs, some area pharmacists said drug prices can fluctuate.

Ralph Roberts, who owns Magnolia Square Pharmacy in Hagerstown, said drug discounts vary because pharmaceutical companies reserve the right to remove a drug from a discount category after a period of time.

"I'm sort of in the dark," Roberts said. "I keep getting information from my wholesaler and drug prices keep changing."

Peter Ashkenaz, spokesperson with Maryland's Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said the drug card program is coming along smoothly and like any new program, lots of questions are expected.

He said Medicare has 3,000 customer service representatives answering phone calls and waits shouldn't last longer than "five to 10 minutes," he said. There also have been Web site upgrades to address some computer glitches experienced by some seniors trying to obtain drug cards online.

Meanwhile, Henson said she contacted her supplemental insurance carrier for assistance and expects a Medicare drug card introduction packet in the mail soon. She said the discount should reduce the cost of the drug Lanoxin from $22 to about $12, according to calculations made by her agent.

"The discount card may lower the cost 10 (percent) to 20 percent off of what they're paying," said Ashkenaz, who warns seniors with supplemental insurance plans to check their policy's discount to make sure the drug card is worth their while.

Meanwhile, Eversole said the card is a big plus for seniors who qualify, but access has created obstacles for some. She has counseled seniors such as Henson who couldn't get through Medicare's hot line and weren't computer literate enough to tackle online registration.

"It's a complicated maze," Henson said.

Ashkenaz said phone representatives will help seniors sign up for drug cards online, and that processing time takes about a week.

The Washington County Commission on Aging plans to offer more public education seminars addressing future Medicare policy changes.

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