With her first chance to join a Medicare prescription drug plan just weeks away, Carolyn Lockwood joined dozens of elderly Baltimore County residents at the Lansdowne Senior Center and listened intently as presenters explained the program's intricacies.
She tried to make sense of it all, asking question after question of the two county Department of Aging officials at the front of the room. But she left with more than a few questions.
"What brought me out today was to be able to understand. But you have senior citizens here, and some of us aren't as sharp as we used to be," the 67-year-old Lansdowne resident said after the hourlong talk Friday. "It's a very complicated plan."
With enrollment in the voluntary drug benefit plans scheduled to begin Nov. 15, officials throughout the region are holding talks such as the one in Lansdowne. Their efforts are part of an extensive undertaking by area jurisdictions, state government and seniors organizations to educate the elderly and the disabled about the complex and often-confusing program.
Officials are making the rounds of senior centers, nutrition sites and retirement communities. They're also making appearances on public-access cable television, buying advertisements and printing booklets. They're gearing up for a slew of phone calls from seniors who can expect to be bombarded with information on the program's various plans in the coming weeks. And they're warning seniors of the potential for unethical schemes.
The program, which begins Jan. 1 and relies on private insurers, marks the first time Medicare will provide a prescription drug component - a development that is the biggest in the federal health care program's 40-year history, say those familiar with the plan.
Seniors in Maryland are faced with the task of evaluating dozens of options, including a variety of premiums and lists of covered drugs. There are deadlines for joining without penalty and opportunities for government assistance with premiums, co-pays and deductibles.
Although the program is a federal undertaking, officials with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recognize that help from local agencies and officials will be crucial to seniors' understanding of the benefit, said Gary Karr, a CMS spokesman.
"We know they're on the front lines," he said. "Seniors who need help and assistance are often going to go to trusted sources nearby."
Local senior center directors and area aging agency officials say their help will be more detailed - face-to-face assistance for those who may be overwhelmed with information.
"We're the person you get without pushing 37 buttons," said Janet Wright, who coordinates the Senior Health Insurance Program in Harford County. "We answer the phones with a live human being. That's important to seniors."
In Baltimore County, home to 124,000 Medicare-eligible residents, the Department of Aging expects to hold more than 150 outreach sessions through the spring, when the enrollment period ends, said Arnold Eppel, the county's director of aging.
For the county's Senior Expo this month - a two-day event at the Timonium Fairgrounds that traditionally draws about 10,000 people - officials have scheduled hourly seminars on the drug program and have set aside space for private providers involved in the benefit to hawk their plans, Eppel said.
In Baltimore City, officials are giving several presentations on the plan. They had also hoped to send out a mass mailing and automated telephone message to 104,000 Medicare-eligible residents. But privacy laws made it impossible to get individual information to compile lists, said John P. Stewart, executive director of the city's Commission on Aging and Retirement Education.
Stewart calls the new program a "prescription for confusion."
"Many seniors will not be able to take advantage of an important benefit because they don't understand," he said. "There is a timeline here."
Area aging agency officials say they've been limited in what they can tell their populations because details about participating companies, the plans they're offering to Maryland residents and the lists of drugs covered under each have been slow in coming. Federal officials did not announce the companies approved to take part until late last month, and insurers were not allowed to start marketing their plans until Oct. 1.
Still, officials say, all of the sessions have been worthwhile - if only to alert the Medicare-eligible population that there's something new on the horizon.
"It's a complicated program, and we're going to do our best to help subscribers and advise them," said Jean W. Roesser, secretary of the state Department of Aging.
In Baltimore County and elsewhere, programs have often featured a mix of federal, state and local officials, as well as those involved in organizations geared toward senior populations. At the Lansdowne presentation, Social Security Administration workers were on hand to answer questions about federal subsidies for lower-income residents.