Drug plan deadline looms for the eligible

To say that San Mateo resident Martha Greenough helped her father, Larry Wenrick, save nearly $8,000 a year by switching him to Medicare’s new prescription-drug plan would be telling only part of the story.

With tonight’s deadline for thedrug plan — known as Part D — looming, Greenough sat down at her computer and attempted to navigate Medicare’s Web site, something her 78-year-old father couldn’t do. But the process was confusing, even for Greenough, a bookkeeper. So she called consultant Esther Koch for help.

“I thought if you had all your information and you could list all your drugs, it would help you,” Greenough said. “But not at first.”

Koch, who has trained dozens of companies and other groups in the Part-D process since the enrollment period opened January 1, admits the new plan is complex. It’s designed primarily to help citizens with little or no prescription drug coverage, and offers a dizzying array of drug plans, pharmacies and eligibility requirements.

Signing up starts with knowing what plan you currently have — something many seniors don’t know, Koch said. About 25 million of those eligible for Part D already have coverage, meaning they don’t need to — and shouldn’t — switch to the Medicare drug plan.

“There are some pitfalls if you do it by mistake,” Koch said. Some confused enrollees have been kicked off their current health care plans when they signed up for the new prescription-drug plan.

Likewise, low-income Medicare beneficiaries who already receive drug benefits find that if they switch to Part D, they wind up paying more for the drugs they need, according to David Lipschutz, staff attorney with California Health Advocates.

Part D’s complexities have led to misinformation. He cited a recent study that found one-third of those calling the Medicare information hot line received faulty instructions.

As it stands, those who don’t sign up by midnight tonight will not have another opportunity to enroll before November. When they do, they will be charged a penalty of roughly 32 cents for each month they weren’t enrolled, Koch said.

As of May 7, 800,000 eligible Californians had not yet signed up, according to Medicare spokesman Jack Cheevers.

Despite the complex enrollment process, many people will benefit from Part D, Lipschutz acknowledged. “There’s no question it’s helped some people. And there’s no question it’s harmed some people.”

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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