A drug plan that requires 2 aspirin

Complex Medicare cards offer discounts along with a terrific headache

On The Money

Your Money

July 18, 2004|By Lorene Yue

The temporary Medicare drug card program, intended to provide relief for seniors with large medicine bills, has served up a whopper of a headache.

The trip-up? Trying to choose the best card out of more than 70 options.

Some of the Medicare-approved drug cards are tied to specific health insurers, some to certain nursing homes. Some have limited availability, while others can be used anywhere in the country.

"At first impression, it can be a lot," said John C. Rother, director of public policy for AARP, the advocacy group for seniors. "It is complicated because the whole function of the pharmaceutical industry is complicated."

Here are some answers about the program:

What is Medicare card?

The card, issued by drugstores, pharmaceutical manufacturers and health insurance companies, to name a few, offers discounts on certain prescription drugs and is a stopgap measure until the new Medicare drug benefit program starts in 2006.

The temporary drug card program started June 1; you can enroll anytime, and it's optional.

Drug discounts are available to all cardholders regardless of income. But if you are among the 20 percent of seniors who have less than $1,047 in monthly income, you could qualify for a $600 annual credit to help pay for your medicines.

If the $600 runs out before the end of the year, some cards will provide your medicine free for the rest of the year.

You can start your search at www.medicare.gov. Plug in a few answers and the Web site will spit out some recommendations. It's your job to dig further for your final choice.

How much will I save?

That depends on the medicines you are taking and whether they are brand-name or generic drugs.

You could save up to 17 percent off the national average retail price on commonly used drugs, according to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

You could save even more money if you use generic brands. Those savings are between 46 percent and 96 percent when purchased with the new Medicare drug card.

Drugs covered?

That varies from card to card. It helps to have all of your medications and dosages in front of you when doing research.

"Some drugs have different prices based on dosage size, and the discounts can change," said Peter Ashkenaz, spokesman for CMS.

Companies can also change their discount list at any time, and prices are always subject to change.

Ordering medications via mail also provides significant savings, but not all Medicare drug cards participate in that program. Make sure yours does if you want that option.

Cost of card?

Prices vary, but you won't pay more than $35 a year. Don't let the cost drive your decision. Cheapest isn't always the best if the medication you need isn't part of that plan, Rother said.

Participating stores?

Not all pharmacies participate in the Medicare drug card program. Make sure yours does.

If you travel or live in more than one state during the year, make sure that your card works across state lines.

More than one card?

You can have only one Medicare-affiliated discount drug card. If you have another, similar discount drug card that is not part of the Medicare program, you can still use it.

Can I change cards?

You can get another card if you move to a state that no longer accepts the one you have or if the company offering your card stops its program.

You can also switch cards if you join or leave a Medicare managed-care plan or enter or leave a long-term care facility. Otherwise, the only time you can apply for a new card is from Nov. 15 to Dec. 31.

Lorene Yue is a Your Money staff writer.

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