Spread the word

August 22, 2007

Nearly 5 million poor people may be eligible for drug benefits through Medicare but don't receive them, a new survey reported, largely because they don't know the help is available.

The prescription here seems obvious: Federal, state, and local agencies must redouble their efforts to spread the word - Medicare officials in particular.

About one-third of Americans 65 and older had no prescription drug coverage before the Medicare Part D program was launched last year. That group shrank to 8 percent as of last fall, according to a national survey of 16,000 seniors published yesterday by the journal Health Affairs.

But those with Part D coverage faced higher out-of-pocket costs than seniors covered through employer-paid retirement plans or the Department of Veterans' Affairs. One in five said those costs were so burdensome, they delayed buying medications or went without.

Many in that group have incomes low enough to qualify for extra help, but they aren't signed up for it. Despite an exhaustive effort in Maryland and other states last year to locate older Americans and help them enroll in the prescription drug program, there are 5,385 people in Baltimore alone who qualify for low-income subsidies but aren't getting them. The survey suggests about half those people are enrolled in Part D.

City and state officials have been trying to get access to federal records to track down those people but have been rebuffed because of privacy concerns. This is absurd. If Medicare officials can't share the information, they should make the contacts.

Once eligible people are found, it can take up to four hours to walk them through the Medicare sign-up maze, according to John P. Stewart, director of Baltimore's commission on aging. Surely federal officials can do more to identify them than just passing along a count by ZIP codes.

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