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Medicare reforms complicated, but help is available

October 19, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett contends that the federal government's new Medicare reforms are complicated. So the congressman hosted a meeting Monday at Robinwood Medical Center aimed at helping ease confusion over the new drug discount program for Medicare patients.

"This is very bewildering," Bartlett said. "You've got to have somebody to hold your hand."

Though he said he voted for the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 because it included a provision for health savings accounts (pre-tax accounts for individuals to save money for health-care expenses), Bartlett said the legislation "was not my choice."

He said that rather than addressing the needs of what he estimated were 25 percent of Medicare recipients who most needed immediate help with their health-care expenses, "the bill addressed the whole universe" of patients "and created a whole big, new entitlement program."

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But Robert Zimmerman, regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Medicare reforms provide immediate assistance for low-income Medicare patients through drug discount cards and a $600 credit that will be available for the remainder of 2004 and for 2005.

In 2006, permanent Medicare reforms kick in, replacing drug discount card programs.

Depending on which discount card a patient is eligible for, he could save 15 percent to 30 percent on brand-name drugs, 37 percent to 65 percent on generic drugs and 5 percent to 20 percent on mail-order drugs.

He added that in some instances, these cards may be combined with other discount programs for more savings.

Two retired nurses who attended the meeting told Bartlett they believed pharmaceutical companies should take the blame for high prescription costs.

"Do you have any idea how much they're spending romancing the doctors?" asked Doris Cornelius, 69, of Hagerstown.

She said that before the meeting, her impression of the drug discount program "was it was a bunch of stuff." Now, she said, she's going to investigate the different options available. She didn't know how much she was spending per month on her medications, she said.

"I'm fortunate that I don't have to take a lot yet," she said.

"My complaint is the amount of money pharmaceutical companies are spending on advertising, romancing physicians and the goodies they give away," she said.

Pat Luipersbeck, 69, of Hagerstown, said she hasn't applied for a discount card because she's already saving more on her prescription drugs by mail-ordering them through her insurer.

"I save about $150 over three months on one prescription," she said.

She suggested to Bartlett that there ought to be a cap on the profits pharmaceuticals are permitted to earn from drug sales.

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