Sen. Talent works to explain Medicare reforms

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

U.S. Sen. Jim Talent touted the new Medicare prescription drug law Tuesday before nearly 20 elderly Cape Girardeau-area residents who had little to say about the program. The few who spoke at the afternoon meeting at the Cape Girardeau Senior Center said the prescription drug plan, which will take effect this summer, is confusing and could end up being a bureaucratic mess.

William Pledger, 70, of Cape Girardeau told Talent that the new Medicare law regulations are hard to understand. "I think I'll still be confused," he said after listening to Talent explain the Medicare law.

Pledger worried that he and his wife might make too much money to qualify for the $600 credit for prescription drugs. But Talent suggested Pledger's wife could qualify even though Pledger receives federal health benefits as a veteran.

Still, Talent said he understands Pledger's concern. "There is a bias in a lot of laws against marriage," he said, adding that income stipulations can work against married couples who file joint tax returns.

Missouri's elderly will be able to buy prescription medicine at discounted prices as soon as this summer, Talent said.

Medicare beneficiaries will have the option of an immediate benefit through a prescription drug card.

"It provides immediate relief," said Talent, a member of the Senate's Special Committee on Aging.

More than 214,000 elderly Missourians on Medicare will have help in paying for prescription drugs for the first time, he said.

But Cape Girardeau resident Loretta Schneider voiced concern about the new government program. "We are creating another whole bureaucracy," she said. "I think everyone would agree Medicare is already a major, major nightmare.

Medicare will contract with private companies to offer new drug discount cards until the complete new benefit program takes effect in 2006, Talent said.

The discount cards will work two ways. Regardless of income, every Medicare-eligible, elderly resident who wants the card can use it for a discount of 10 percent to 25 percent on prescription drugs.

In addition in 2004 and 2005, low-income elderly people can use the card to pay for $600 a year in prescription medicine.

To receive the second benefit, they must have a 2004 income of less than $12,569 per individual or $16,862 per couple.

Low-income elderly people can receive the discount cards for free. The rest will pay an annual enrollment fee of $30, Talent said of the new law.

Starting in 2006, Medicare beneficiaries will have three basic choices:

Staying in the traditional Medicare program.

Adding a prescription drug plan through private companies.

And enrolling in Medicare Advantage, which will provide benefits through preferred provider organizations.

The standard benefit will have a $250 deductible. Medicare then will pay 75 percent of drug expenses up to $2,250 a year. Above that level, elderly people would pay all of their drug costs until they reach a maximum of $3,600 in out-of-pocket spending.

Medicare will pay about 95 percent of the annual cost of prescription drugs above the $3,600 level.

Critics attack the new law's reliance on private companies and gaps in coverage.

An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office concluded that as many as 2.7 million retirees would lose more generous drug benefits they currently have from former employers.

But after the meeting in Cape Girardeau, Talent said much of the criticism comes from Democrats who are using the issue to attack President Bush. "I really think that it is politics," he said.

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