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Medicare bungling has Utahns simmering

Published October 28, 2005 1:20 am

Drug signup: They vent growing frustration at a local seniors forum
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Utah seniors and their advocates are growing increasingly frustrated with Medicare's new prescription drug benefit and the government's failure to meet its own deadline for providing key pricing information.

At a seminar at the Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, a group of seniors asked questions and expressed their confusion over the program. Sally Anne Brown, of the Utah Division on Aging and Adult Services, chastised the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for failing to roll out an essential Internet tool, intended to help Utah's 240,000 beneficiaries compare the more than 50 plans available in this state.

The feature that is missing from http://www.medicare.gov will eventually allow beneficiaries to see how much their drugs would cost under different plans. It was slated to be available on Oct. 13.

"We just have to wait until that stupid Web site is up and running," Brown said, while giving a presentation on the benefit. "The delays are incredible."

Asked about the delays at a press briefing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who now oversees Medicare, said in jest that he was going to look into the audience and see if the comparison tool magically appeared. Then he said he wasn't sure. One of his aides stood up and said it would be "very shortly," an answer Leavitt then repeated.

Brown said she has heard angry comments from seniors at several seminars.

Helen Schlesinger, 89, of Salt Lake City, said she realizes the benefit is voluntary, but feels pressured by the barrage of advertisements and notices she has received. She takes one medication for high blood pressure, and said she has insurance that helps pay for it.

She theorizes Medicare wants to push people who don't need drug coverage into joining to subsidize those who do.

"It's mind-boggling," she said. "It's crazy. Why don't they just leave us be with what we're doing?"

Muriel Abrams said she never so much as catches a cold and will not sign up for the benefit. She takes only a daily Tums for calcium. She, too, was puzzled by the program. "I will never understand it," she said.

Americans who have existing prescription coverage that is deemed comparable to the new Medicare program will not incur a penalty if they do not enroll by a May 15, 2006, deadline. Others, however, will pay a late penalty if they join later.

The penalty equals one percent of the premium amount for each month that enrollment is delayed. For example, if a person delays enrollment for two years, he or she will pay an additional 24 percent on top of the premium each year.

Why the penalty exists is one of the 12 most-commonly asked questions about the new benefit, according to the Medicare Rx Education Network, which includes 70 national organizations and is chaired by former Democratic U.S. Senator John Breaux of Louisiana.

Its answer: "Like all health insurance, healthy individuals help pay for those who are sick." The penalty, it explains, is an "incentive for healthy seniors to sign up and, in this way, to ensure the stability of the coverage."

Healthy seniors will benefit if they become ill, the network adds.

Brown emphasized that interested seniors should seek help in choosing a plan once the Web site is up. She also urged those who are unhappy with the benefit to write or call their representatives in Congress.

In the meantime, she and others will continue their massive education campaign.

"Again, this is not the best program," she said. "It's not the worst program. It is very difficult to draft a massive program that is palatable to everyone."



Tribune reporter Thomas Burr contributed to this story.

The deadlines:

Enrollment does not begin until Nov. 15. Seniors without existing, comparable coverage have until May 15, 2006, to choose a plan without incurring a penalty.

For help:

* Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Medicare Program 1-800-MEDICARE


* Utah's Medicare Outreach Coalition To see its calendar of events, go to http://

www.daas.utah.gov/UMOC or call 1-866-448-3616




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