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Medicare relief on the way

By Clay Wilson

Beginning in June, many Clayton and Henry County Medicare recipients can realize some savings on their prescription drugs – if they can navigate between myriad discount plans available.

Qualified area Medicare recipients have been able to sign up for the "Medicare-approved drug discount cards" since the beginning of May. However, some published reports have indicated that elderly consumers are having difficulty sorting through the drug benefit options available to them.

The Medicare Prescription Drug, Modernization and Improvement Act, passed by Congress in December, provides that the federal program for the elderly and disabled will include prescription drug benefits in 2006. While Medicare already pays for certain prescriptions, such as cancer drugs, many others aren't covered.

Beginning in June through December 31, 2005, eligible Medicare recipients who have signed up will receive Medicare-approved drug discount cards. The cards, which are furnished through private companies and cost up to $30 per year, provide savings on many prescription drugs.

But the amount of the discount depends on the company providing the card, the type of plan chosen, and the type of drug purchased.

According to information from the American Association for Retired Persons, the cards will allow consumers to save 10 to 15 percent on their total prescription costs. However, Cox News Service recently cited a Pharmaceutical Care Management Association survey indicating average savings of 17 percent for brand-name drugs and 35 percent for generics.

Furthermore, published reports show that there are more than 70 different types of discount cards available. According to Medicare's Web site, a hypothetical consumer living in Jonesboro with an income between $900-$999 per month who takes five common prescription drugs could choose from 40 cards.

"How overwhelming would it be for a senior? It was quite overwhelming for me," mused Laurie Hamilton, a registered nurse with Moyes Pharmacy in Henry County.

In late April, at the request of pharmacy's owners Tony Moyes and Loren Pierce, Hamilton conducted seminars on the Medicare drug discount cards in Hampton, Locust Grove, McDonough and Stockbridge.

"We all felt that the seniors needed to have information," Hamilton said.

Medicare recipients can choose only one card, and each has different benefits and pharmacies at which it can be used.

Citizens who receive Medicare Part A or B are eligible for the card, unless they receive prescription drug benefits through Medicaid. People with low incomes (no more than $12,569 for singles and $16,862 for married couples) are eligible for an additional credit of up to $600 in 2004 and 2005.

People whose prescription drugs are covered through a private health care plan can enroll in Medicare's program – however, they must then decide whether Medicare or their private plan will allow them a bigger discount.

Some local residents who have private coverage have apparently decided that it's better to stick with the plan they know.

"I have not gone into it too much," said Hampton resident Lottie Greer. "I don't want to rock the boat."

Greer said she is "blessed by having a good medicine plan" through General Motors, from which her husband, Billy, retired.

She said that Medicare generally does a good job of trying to keep recipients informed of changes that could affect them.

"They tell you every once in a while. They send you a book that gives you a lot of information," she said.

However, a spokesperson with Congressman David Scott's Jonesboro office said that "because (the program is) so complex," they haven't received the information packets they were expecting yet. She noted that program participants should get packets mailed directly to them, but in the meantime, the congressman's office is directing inquirers to call Medicare's toll-free number.

Mindy French, program manager for the Clayton County Aging Program, said the program hasn't received a lot of inquiries about the Medicare discount cards yet.

Hamilton noted that many of the private companies offering the cards have only recently started sending out information.

"Seniors are just now starting to ask a lot of questions," she said; but she also predicted, "There will be a lot more questions when (the discount card program) goes into effect."