Medicare drug cards show varied savings

Some in state programs are unlikely to benefit

July 29, 2004|By Deborah Barfield Berry | Deborah Barfield Berry,NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON - While some seniors can save money with Medicare drug discount cards, many of those already enrolled in state assistance programs aren't likely to see any major saving, according to a study released yesterday.

"There's nothing particularly that has changed for them," said Michael Hash, an analyst at the Health Policy Alternatives Inc., which conducted the study for the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care group. Still, he said, states are likely to save lots of money by shifting costs to the federal government.

The Kaiser study analyzed data from Medicare's Web site, including comparing prices offered by drug card companies.

The new Medicare drug law set up the temporary discount cards until the drug benefit begins in 2006. The success of the card program, which began June 1, could set the stage for how the benefit will work.

"This is a work in progress," said Mark McClellan, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. "We're going to keep working on what we're learning here."

Nearly two months after the program began, the study found that many seniors struggle to navigate Medicare's Web site, which it called "far from user friendly." The site list the cards available and their drug prices - what the study said was "a bewildering array of choices."

The program initially offered 72 regional and national cards, but five have dropped out. Beth Fuchs, a co-author of the study, said it's difficult to know who card companies are and whether seniors are getting true choices since some cards have the same discounts and use the same pharmacy networks. "There are fewer choices than meets the eye," she said.

Peter Manger, 60, of Ronkonkoma, searched Medicare's Web site comparison shopping for his mother. He said for those with few prescriptions choosing one card can be hard because different companies offer better discounts on different drugs. "You're stuck," he said.

Meanwhile, the study found that some seniors can get significant savings. In one case, it compared mail-order prices for 10 commonly prescribed drugs on some cards to those offered by Costco and and found the cards cheaper.

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