Medicare still causes headaches for seniors

Chuck McLaughlin is so aggravated by Medicare’s prescription drug program that the 81-year-old retired businessman wrote a poem about it.

“The plan you choose may cost you more as no one knows what might occur there really should be a better way so we can see how we can pay,” is how McLaughlin, of San Francisco, ended his rhyme.

“It’s just a mad house,” he said as he explained Medicare Part D’s dizzying array of drug plans, pharmacies and eligibility requirements.

Like millions of other Medicare beneficiaries facing a second year of Part D signups or re-enrollments, McLaughlin has until midnight Sunday to decide to keep his prescription coverage or choose a new plan from the more than 50 available statewide, according to Medicare spokesman Jack Cheevers.

“We are urging people who are already enrolled to do a benefits check up,” he said. “The key thing is to know that, if you are taking five different drugs, that all those drugs are still covered.”

Seniors change medications frequently and plans may have dropped drugs, but once the deadline passes, most who take no action are locked into coverage for another year, he said. More than 4 million of California’s 4.2 million eligible Medicare beneficiaries already have some sort of coverage, he said.

It’s a convoluted, confusing process, but help is out there, said Esther Koch, founder of San Mateo-based Encore Management consulting, which helps patients select Medicare plans.

She recommends the drug plan finder on Medicare’s Web site,

www.medicare.gov.

“It is a very powerful tool — it sorts from least to most expensive. It’s like your list of Christmas gifts sorted by price. But costs can vary wildly,” she said. “This year is the first year of activity, so it’s more likely that plans have changed,” she said.

People should help their senior parents if the Web intimidates them, or they can call Medicare’s hot line, she said.

The nonprofit Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program is another resource for those who need assistance. It can be reached at (800) 434-0222, Koch said.

“We don’t do the enrolling for them, but we will help them through,” Diana Gray of San Mateo County’s HICAP said.

She urges seniors to reconsider their options now.

Last-minute enrollees should be sure to find out their member identification and contract plan numbers, which should be accepted by pharmacists, but problems did arise last year, she said. Gray also recommends seniors fill current prescriptions before the year is up, just in case.

eholt@examiner.com

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