Seniors uncomfortable with Medicare Web site

Technology, giving personal information deter many


WASHINGTON -- The new Medicare prescription drug plan that goes into operation in January is one of the most complicated federal benefits ever devised, and senior citizens by the tens of thousands have been shying away from signing up. But not to worry, federal officials say: They've developed a new system called "Plan Finder" to make everything simpler - a kind of magic decoder ring to melt away the confusion and help seniors save money.

There's just one catch: The new system is designed for people who have no problem getting onto the Internet - something fewer than one-third of all elderly Americans have ever done.

If navigating the Internet is not challenge enough, those who get to the Web site must type and mouse-click their way through screen after screen of questions, boxes to check, options and choices.

They must feed in personal information about themselves, the drugs they take and the pharmacy they use. Only then will they get a personalized list of available insurance plans, with their main characteristics spelled out and their costs ranked from lowest to highest. That, experts agree, is where the real comparison shopping should begin.

To computer wizards, or the Xbox-generation grandchildren of today's senior citizens, all this would be child's play. "It's neat - it's well done," said 35-year-old Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

But the aging, computer-challenged customers whom Plan Finder is intended to help might disagree. "For someone who is computer-savvy, I would probably give [Plan Finder] a B," said Marlene Eskin of Austin, Texas, who is 70 and works as a marketing consultant. "For the audience they are directing it to, the majority of whom may not even have a computer, I would give it a D."

And the problems with Plan Finder seem to range from its technical difficulties to cultural disconnects between its designers, who are comfortable with the conventions of the online world, and its intended users, who frequently are not.

Muriel Bennett is a retired small-business owner from New York who uses the Internet to look up book and theater reviews and to research medical topics. But the prospect of plugging private information such as her Social Security number into Plan Finder leaves her cold.

"I don't like putting any personal information in," said Bennett, who is in her 80s. "I have never put in my credit card number. And I'd sooner put my credit card number in than my Social Security number."

Recent surveys show that 23 percent to 30 percent of seniors go online, compared with more than 70 percent of all Americans. Like Bennett, many of those seniors tend to be cautious about feeding personal data into a system they don't fully understand or trust.

And for many who need the new drug plan most, those in frail health with serious medical problems, just gaining access to a computer and manipulating its keyboard and mouse may be difficult if not impossible.

Even some of those responsible for creating the new system acknowledge the difficulties.

"The average senior probably has to have some help in navigating it. I had to do that with both my parents," said Michael Cho, 42, president of Los Angeles-based DestinationRx, which developed the Plan Finder for Medicare. "Like anything new, it's an intimidating process."

The goal of the prescription plan is to let seniors buy private insurance plans that fit their individual needs. The difficulty is that the plans offer a bewildering number of choices. Different plans have different premiums, co-payment requirements, lists of covered drugs and prices for their drugs.

That complexity is what Plan Finder is designed to cut through. Taking information about an individual, the system sorts through policies and makes up a chart that shows how they compare in costs and benefits.

"The Plan Finder is the best and only available tool [to pick a plan]," said James Firman, of the National Council on the Aging. "It's very difficult to do this without the [Internet] tool because of the number of nuances in the decision. The [computerized] tools are smarter than the individual."

Federal officials say the Medicare prescription plan is a good deal because the government will pay about half of the typical beneficiary's costs. And the Plan Finder offer seniors more powerful technology than most working-age people have when shopping for health insurance, said Mary Agnes Laureno, director of beneficiary information services for Medicare.

Plan Finder "is pretty unique - we are pricing even down to the pharmacy of your choice," Laureno said. "Even if only 25 percent of seniors are actively using the Internet, that is still 11 million people, and that is a lot of people."

Government officials point out that the Internet is not the only way to access Plan Finder. Seniors can also call 800-MEDICARE, where a benefits agent will use Plan Finder for them and mail them a printout. So far, the average time on hold for those calling in is less than two minutes - five minutes during peak hours in the evening - Laureno said.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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