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The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON - Medicare's prescription drug card program was launched this week with so much confusion and chaos that experts have a common warning for seniors: Hold off on making a drug card selection.
"Our message is don't rush," said Elinor Ginzler, a manager at AARP, the nation's largest seniors group. Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, added: "Do not jump at the first card you hear about."
Among the reasons to wait: More card plans will become available, companies might cut drug prices further, and seniors should take time to evaluate which plan offers the most convenience and the best deal.
Health care companies began marketing their discount cards on Monday. Medicare's phone lines logged a record 407,000 calls that day, as people complained that the program was confusing and the drug price listings were incomplete or wrong.
"A lot of (seniors) are crossing their eyes and throwing their hands up in the air," said Lynda Ender, an advocacy director at the senior citizens group The Senior Source.
Even so, Ender said she has confidence many seniors will do a good job in picking a drug card. "A lot of them have already had to become cost-conscious consumers because of the high cost of drugs."
Among the sources of confusion is Medicare's Web site, www.medicare.gov. It has vast amounts of information, but experts said it is cumbersome and some users lack the computer skills to sort through the options. That is why Medicare is making the same information available through its toll-free phone line at 800-633-4227.
Experts say seniors should remember two points:
While they can begin signing up for cards beginning June 1, there is no deadline. So they can take their time assessing card fees, drug prices and participating pharmacies.
Also, they are not required to get drug cards and might get better discounts with other programs. The card is intended for retirees who do not have coverage, especially low-income seniors who can qualify for a $600 drug credit.
The discount card program is designed to provide short-term relief from rising drug prices. It will end in 2006 when Medicare rolls out its first-ever prescription drug insurance.
Medicare expects more than 70 health companies to offer drug cards. And experts said there are several reasons to wait before selecting a card.
For starters, the list of drug card programs is incomplete. The government has approved about 40 card programs so far.
And Medicare is still fine-tuning its data bank of card plans, drug prices and pharmacies.
For instance, Walgreen Co. said prices listed for some drugs at its retail stores were inaccurate - errors the company made in supplying information to Medicare.
"There was some question over the wording of what prices were to be submitted. We determined that we made an error," said company spokeswoman Carol Hively.
In another case, Pharmacy Care Alliance submitted 60,000 drug prices to Medicare only to find they had provided too much information. Pharmacy Care provided eight prices for each drug, including prices for 30-day, 60-day and 90-day dosages purchased at retail outlets and for 90-day dosages offered by mail.
"We have worked through it," said Kelley Gannon, a spokeswoman for Pharmacy Care. Its information will be ready Monday when Medicare posts updated prices on its Web site.
Despite such glitches, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said, he is pleased with the speed and ease of implementing such a complicated program. But even he urged seniors to wait a week or more before picking a drug card.
"Seniors should window shop for at least another 10 days before they decide which card plan they should enroll in," he said.
Thompson predicts the competition will force more cuts when new prices are posted Monday. "I am confident that when they post their numbers, we will see a continuation of a reduction in prices," he said.
(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.