Washington --- To hear Bush administration officials tell it, competition among Medicare-approved discount drug cards is causing prescription prices to plummet.
Critics say the process of choosing a card is so arduous and confusing that many elderly and disabled Americans are throwing up their hands in frustration.
Ready or not, the Medicare-approved cards take effect Tuesday.
"When you compare the price of drugs seniors pay at their local pharmacies --- where most seniors prefer to buy their medicines --- the Medicare-approved cards offer real savings," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said.
The cards are offering discounts of 10 percent to 17 percent below the average retail price paid by all Americans for brand-name drugs, according to a report by Medicare's parent agency, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Some cards' retail prices are 1 percent to 7 percent below those offered by major Internet drug providers, according to CMS.
Beneficiaries and advocates say it's still too confusing.
"Having 70 cards is befuddling to people," said Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization. "The level of choice can be overwhelming."
Medicare has approved 73 cards so far. Thirty-nine cards can be purchased nationwide; 33 are available regionally --- New York has the most local cards with five, Florida has four --- and one is available nationwide only to nursing home residents.
To help beneficiaries choose which card is best for them, Medicare last month began posting on its Web site, www.medicare.gov, weekly comparisons of prices charged by every card for every drug in every participating pharmacy. Critics say that doesn't help everyone.
"Most of the seniors I know don't have a computer, or are not that good using the Internet," said Dr. Timothy McNamee, president of Vero Beach-based Rx Assistance, which helps people connect with drug assistance programs offered by states and drug manufacturers.
But Richard Greener, 62, a retired broadcasting executive from Roswell, said he had no problem navigating through the Medicare Web site to find the best deal on 10 of the 16 drugs he takes as a heart patient.
In addition to the Web site, Medicare increased its customer service staff from 400 to more than 2,000 to handle calls to its 24-hour, seven-days-a-week, toll-free hotline at 1-800-633-4227. The average waiting period is about five to 15 minutes, and the average call takes about 12 minutes, according to a Medicare spokesman.
Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution