Medicare handbook has error


CHICAGO -- The Medicare handbook that is arriving in Baltimore-area mailboxes this month includes a significant mistake.

About 42 million elderly and disabled people across the country are to receive the 2006 Medicare guide, the definitive written explanation of the federal health program's complicated new prescription drug benefit.

The handbook gives incorrect information about a program called "Extra Help," which will provide financial assistance to low-income Medicare members. In a chart at the back, the guide mistakenly indicates that Extra Help recipients can sign up for any Medicare drug plan and pay no monthly premium for coverage.

That is true of 40 percent of the plans listed, those with premiums at or below a regional average rate.

If Extra Help recipients select more expensive plans - 60 percent of those listed - they will be responsible for paying the difference between the higher premium and the regional average. That could run to more than $30 a month, an expense low-income consumers can ill afford, advocates said.

"This error is actually quite crucial," said Vicki Gottlich, a senior attorney with the Center for Medicare Advocacy in Washington. "Many people rely on this handbook, and they're not going to realize the information printed is wrong."

Medicare's new drug benefit begins in January. Until now, the federal health program hasn't paid for most prescription medications. Private companies began marketing drug plans to consumers this month.

The mistake in the Medicare guide came to light last week, as officials were mailing millions of copies to households across the country. It is at the back of the 100-plus page handbook, where comparison charts listing each region's drug plans are listed.

"The last column of the charts is headed, `If I quality for Extra Help, will my full premium be covered?'" according a letter to all members of Congress from Linda Fishman, director of legislation for the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. "Due to an error, this column lists yes for every plan."

Gary Karr, a Medicare spokesman, said a proofreading error was responsible for the mistake and pointed out that it has been corrected on the program's Web site,

Judith Graham writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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