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Relax rules, end penalty for late-comers to Part D plan

May 23, 2006

For almost a year, a Washington County official who helps senior citizens with their health insurance needs has been talking to anyone who would listen about the new Medicare Part D prescription drug program.

But when the May 15 deadline for this year's open enrollment arrived, it was clear that thousands of Medicare-eligible residents didn't get the message.

This is the first enrollment for what is a complicated program. If those members of Congress who passed it are truly interested in helping seniors, they will re-open enrollment and waive the penalty until at least the end of 2006.

Though more than 5,000 Medicare-eligible citizens of Washington County haven't enrolled in any of the 47 prescription plans approved in Maryland, the fact that more than 15,000 have enrolled is a tribute to the hard work of Katrina Eversole.

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Eversole, a health insurance advocate with the Senior Health Insurance Assistance Program and a 22-year employee of Washington County Commission on Aging, began publicizing the program a year ago.

Since then, in addition to doing numerous interviews with radio, TV and The Herald-Mail, Eversole organized many sign-up events.

Seniors and other Medicare-eligible people were asked to bring Medicare cards and a list of the medicines they take and the dosages. Eversole and other volunteers then determined which plans best fit their needs.

The last one was held on Saturday, May 13, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., in the computer lab of the Advanced Technology Center at Hagerstown Community College, as part of the "Celebrating the Generations Expo."

Those of us in the newspaper business have repeatedly been surprised when some readers say they've never heard anything about an issue that we have covered extensively.

That's apparently true of the Medicare Part D program. As we noted when we first wrote about this issue last year, by and large, when it comes to their routines, senior citizens prefer the familiar to the unexpected.

In many cases, Eversole heard senior citizens say that they had thrown away the first notices of the Part D program, because they were satisfied with the drug coverage they already had.

What they didn't realize was that, in some cases, their existing coverage would end, leaving them without any drug plan.

These people were not trying to cheat the government. If anything, they were unknowingly cheating themselves. The people who have paid taxes for many years and contributed so much to this country deserve more help - and fewer penalties - as they transition into a drug plan that for them is complicated and confusing.

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