Navigating drug discount card maze

Baltimore County helps guide seniors through complicated choices

May 19, 2004|By Cyril T. Zaneski | Cyril T. Zaneski,SUN STAFF

Retirees William and Edna Silver of Arbutus would save about $200 from the $1,000 they spend on medication each month with a new Medicare-sponsored prescription drug discount card.

"So far, it looks like the real deal," William Silver said after he selected a card yesterday at a Baltimore County-sponsored seminar at the Catonsville senior center. "It's going to be a real help."

Silver needed plenty of help to choose his card from among more than 30 available in Maryland.

His daughter, Donna Meseke, took a day off from her job as a teacher's aide to accompany him to the seminar, where county Department of Aging officials and a dozen computers were available to steer seniors through volumes of information about discount cards on the Medicare Web site (www.Medicare.gov).

"It's so confusing," Meseke said. "You really need somebody to help guide you."

Few besides promoters of the discount cards in the Bush administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services can discuss the discount card program without using the word "confusing."

Seniors in Maryland must weigh 33 competing offers from private companies offering discount cards as they try to choose the one with the best prices on medications they take regularly. The options vary by ZIP code. Nationally, there are more than 40 sponsoring companies and 73 cards.

Aimed at helping seniors who have no drug benefits, the discount-card program is to begin June 1 and end when the full Medicare prescription drug benefit begins Jan. 1, 2006.

The program is particularly helpful for poor Medicare recipients. Single people who earn less than $12,569 a year and couples who earn less than $16,862 can get a total of $1,200 for medicines this year and next.

Swamped by calls

Hungry for information about the program, seniors are overwhelming Medicare's toll-free telephone line (800-633-4227). People who call between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. are getting busy signals or spending 10 minutes or more on hold.

The agency announced plans Monday to add 400 telephone counselors to the 1,000 who were available during the first two weeks of the card signup.

"It has been confusing for a lot of people," said Kelley Coates, spokeswoman for AARP Maryland. "But we think that for those people who are truly trying to save money, the effort is going to be worth it."

Medicare officials say seniors can save 15 percent to 20 percent on brand-name drugs at retail pharmacies. Maryland residents can save 27 percent or more, the agency says.

Consumer advocates at AARP and other agencies warn seniors to choose their card carefully. They also warn that prices and lists of available drugs can change every week.

Seniors with computer knowhow can get information about the cards at the Medicare Web site.

"It's very easy to use the computer program if you have your information about the drugs you use and the dosages of those drugs," said Thomas Petza, a computer specialist for the Baltimore County Department of Aging, who was on hand to help seniors at the Catonsville seminar.

Only 12% proficient

But recent studies suggest that only 12 percent of seniors are proficient on computers. Local departments of aging have scheduled seminars to help seniors choose cards. Yesterday's was the first of three being sponsored by Baltimore County. Although it had been advertised a month in advance, only a few dozen seniors and three card-sponsoring programs attended.

Spending a morning at the seminar was a good investment of time for William Silver and daughter Donna Meseke. Silver, 69, a retired supervisor for Tulkoff Food Products, takes medications for diabetes and heart problems.

Silver and his daughter found the card sponsored by Envision Pharmaceutical Services, a pharmacy benefit management company in Aurora, Ohio, offered the lowest prices overall on the 15 drugs that he and his wife, Edna, take each day. A printout of the price comparisons on the Silvers' drugs sprawled over 18 pages.

The key for finding the best deal on their medications, Meseke said, was to search for the card offering the lowest prices in the ZIP code of the Costco in Glen Burnie where her parents shop.

"I really don't know how older people who don't have access to a computer are going to make this kind of decision," Silver said.

Help for seniors

Baltimore County has scheduled workshops to teach seniors about the Medicare discount cards. Each begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 8 p.m.

Friday at the Parkville Senior Center, 8601 Harford Road. Call 410-887-5338.

May 26, Ateaze Senior Center, 7401 Holabird Road. Call 410-887-7233.

The Baltimore Commission on Aging and Retirement Education is sponsoring three sessions on the Medicare program. Each will start at 10 a.m. and end at 12:30 p.m. Call 410-396-4932 to reserve a seat.

May 26, Waxter Center for Senior Citizens, 1000 Cathedral St.

June 7, Sandtown-Winchester Senior Center, 1601 Baker St.

June 10, Harbor Life Resource Center, 2990 S. Hanover St.

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