Medicare changes sought

Bureau of Aging to start letter-writing effort on Part D drug benefit

February 04, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

Carroll County's Bureau of Aging officials plan to launch a letter-writing campaign at senior centers this week, encouraging citizens to ask congressional representatives to reform the new, complicated Medicare prescription drug program, said Richard W. Steinberg, bureau chief.

The program has been criticized for forcing participants to choose among a confusing myriad of private insurers and for leaving gaps in coverage of drug costs, widely referred to as a "doughnut hole."

"If we can get thousands of letters from our seniors saying what the problem is, I think we can really get the ball rolling," County Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge told Steinberg and Jolene Sullivan, county citizen services director. "Personally, I think the government needs to change Medicare Part D."

The Bureau of Aging estimated that about 1,500 low-income Carroll County residents are eligible but have not signed up, for a special Low-Income Subsidy program to help them obtain prescription drug coverage under Part D.

Some of those residents may have signed up for Part D without knowing about the extra subsidies, said Debbie Frame, senior information and assistance supervisor for the Bureau of Aging.

The bureau is brainstorming ways to reach out to those residents, who could have 85 percent to 100 percent of their prescription drug costs covered under the Low-Income Subsidy program after paying a deductible, Frame said.

The county's application for a national $100,000 grant to promote this program for those of limited means was denied, Sullivan said. The grant would have funded mass mailings to eligible individuals, home visits and enrollment seminars.

"It's unfortunate," Sullivan told the commissioners. "We're trying to find other sources of revenue."

The annual open enrollment period for Part D doesn't come again until Nov. 15. In the meantime, residents can try to receive free or reduced-cost medicines through pharmaceutical companies or drug samples from their doctors, Frame said. She said if you are just turning 65 or move to another state, you can enroll or change your plan before November.

To qualify for the Low-Income Subsidy program, a monthly income of up to $1,224 for singles or $1,649 for married couples and assets that don't exceed $10,000 for singles or $20,000 for married couples are required, Frame said.

The commissioners said they would share complaints about Medicare Part D with Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett at the National Association of Counties conference in March in Washington.

Sullivan said the Bureau of Aging staff is stretched thin trying to advise seniors on which provider to choose under the Part D plan.

Residents have been bombarded with mailings from insurance providers, and in their confusion, end up choosing a company whose name they recognize, even if that plan may not appropriately cover their needs, Frame added.

County residents have to choose among 55 private insurers, with monthly premiums that start at $12 but can exceed $100.

"It's a nightmare," Frame said. "I would just love to see this made easier for seniors."

A state senior drug assistance program also can help pay up to $25 of the monthly Medicare Part D premium for low-to-moderate-income residents, Frame said.

Local officials said signing up for the program via the Internet or the telephone is a time-consuming process. But many seniors lack computer skills and have trouble hearing Medicare representatives over the phone.

Sullivan and Steinberg said they also hope to get the local chapter of the AARP energized for the Medicare Part D letter-writing campaign, which they expect to formally announce Tuesday.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

For assistance with Medicare Part D or to find out about the Low-Income Subsidy , contact the Bureau of Aging, 410-386-3800.

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