Deadline Monday for Medicare plan

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Many local seniors are finding the program beneficial but confusing.

For the last six months, Marilyn Wiggs weighed the pros and cons. She studied the different plans that are being offered. She just wasn't sure.

Then, on Tuesday, the 68-year-old Cape Girardeau resident -- who takes high-blood pressure and cholesterol medicine -- swallowed what she considered the most bitter of pills.

She signed up for Medicare's prescription-drug program with only days to spare before the Monday deadline.

"I've been dealing with so much of this for so long," Wiggs said. "It's just not worth all this effort. This looks like it's just the cheapest option."

Wiggs joined more than 30 million Medicare beneficiaries who have signed up for the prescription drug coverage. But more than 6 million eligible senior citizens and disabled people have yet to sign up for the federally subsidized prescription-drug coverage.

If they miss this deadline, the next enrollment period is Nov. 15 to Dec. 31. Those who sign up after the deadline will pay a penalty fee. At least 1 percent will be added to the recipient's premium for every month late in enrolling.

Earlier this week the Bush administration announced that those fees will be waived for very low-income seniors and people with disabilities who sign up late. Individual Medicare beneficiaries with incomes below $14,700 and less than $11,500 in assets will be eligible for the waiver. Those figures are $19,800 in income and $23,000 in assets for couples.

Many of those who haven't signed up appear to be swarming to do so in the final few days. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Baltimore, Md., says the enrollment pace has remained consistent at about 400,000 a week.

Senior services agencies and insurance companies that provide the policies -- primarily Aetna Inc., Cigna Corp. and Humana Inc. -- are reaching out to the public, emphasizing the deadline. One insurance company even has had an agent at the Cape Girardeau Wal-Mart Supercenter to assist people in signing up.

"I'd say we've been pretty much nonstop busy," said Ruth Dockins, spokeswoman for the Southeast Missouri Area Agency on Aging, which assists those wanting to enroll. "There are just so many last-minute people trying to get in on it."

People 65 or older or those who have been disabled for at least 24 months can apply at the Area Agency on Aging Office with an appointment, Dockins said. The phone number there is (573) 335-3331.

Seniors can also enroll on the Internet at www.medicare.gov or by phone at (800) MEDICARE. Some area health insurance companies are also enrolling seniors. Other senior services agencies like APPLE are also assisting.

Interested seniors should bring a list of their medicines with them, Dockins said, or tell the agency what those are when they schedule their appointment by phone.

Dockins is encouraging everyone to enroll. Seniors are eligible regardless of how much money they make, she said.

"People are really saving a lot of money," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's one of the best programs we've had."

Locally, 5,896 of Cape Girardeau County's 11,041 eligible residents have enrolled in the plan, according to March figures provided by the agency. In Scott County, 4,551 of the eligible 7,428 eligible have enrolled. In Perry County, 3,027 seniors are eligible and 1,675 have enrolled.

Statewide, 530,977 of the Medicare population have enrolled out of the 897,922 who are eligible.

Independent insurance broker Don Harris, who owns Senior Benefits Service in Jackson, said he's signed up nearly 500 people since the program went into effect in January.

"I think the program is tremendous," he said. "Initially, it was complicated and confusing. They definitely could have made it simpler. But the dust has settled and it's going to save people 50 percent or more on their medicine."

Some beneficiaries who have signed on said they are seeing significant cost savings already.

Jane Barks, 79, is a retired St. Louis County librarian who signed up before the first of the year. She sees a 20-percent savings on her Diovan and Norvasc (both for high-blood pressure) and Lipitor (for high cholesterol).

Barks echoed several other seniors, though, when she said she never really knew what she was signing up for.

"Most of the explanations were never that clear or concise," she said. "I think that somehow they could have done a much better job in figuring out some kind of plan for the elderly. I'm not all that happy with any of the plans."

Others like Wiggs say the Medicare program still isn't enough. Wiggs said she will continue to buy some of her medicines from a pharmacy in Canada, where prescription medicines are much less expensive.

"Even with the Medicare program, some of my medicines are less expensive in Canada," she said. "The U.S. pharmaceutical situation is way out of line."

smoyers@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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