Medicare's Drug Plan Hits the Road

Vans will travel the country to help ease seniors' confusion

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By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Nov. 22, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Health officials and health activists are, literally, rolling out a new strategy to help clear up the confusion surrounding the new U.S. Medicare drug plan.

A fleet of 37 vans with trained staff and technology will wheel around 27 states and the District of Columbia until May 15, 2006, the official end of enrollment for the program, known as the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, or Part D.

The roll-out will encompass 44 metropolitan areas and 300 counties in an attempt to reach many of the 42 million Medicare beneficiaries nationwide. In addition, 700 wireless laptops with pre-loaded software have been donated to organizations that assist people with Part D in the other 23 states.

All this was unveiled at a news conference in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, in which health officials attempted to shine a bright light on the new drug plan while acknowledging that it has already caused massive confusion amongst seniors.

In most areas of the United States, seniors face between 40 and 80 competing plans from various private companies, all accompanied by promotional advertising for the program that kicks in Jan. 1, 2006.

"People are confused. They don't know what to do," said James L. Firman, president of The National Council on the Aging and chairman of the Access to Benefits Coalition, both of which are sponsoring the program and accompanying Web site, called "My Medicare Matters."

Dr. Mark McClellan, administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, added, "As with anything that is important, awareness and education are the key to taking advantage of it. This education is the first step to understanding and getting help."

"We want to maximize the number of people who are informed consumers of Part D and are able to take the appropriate next steps," Firman said.

The confusion amongst potential beneficiaries of Part D has been documented in numerous news stories across the country since the enrollment period began Nov. 15.

And a survey conducted in late October found that almost two-thirds (61 percent) of seniors said they still don't understand how the new benefit works, and only one in five said they intend to enroll.

Part D, which works with private plans to supplement drug costs beginning Jan. 1, is especially designed to help low-income elderly get the medications they need.

However, the October survey, done jointly by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, showed that half of the people who make less than $15,000 a year don't know about the program or don't think they are eligible.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the Internet is the most highly touted source of information on the new plan -- even though 76 percent of seniors polled admitted they had never surfed the Web.

The cornerstone of "My Medicare Matters," Firman explained, is education, not promotion.

"Many older people need and want one-on-one assistance from trusted local intermediaries who aren't trying to sell them a plan but are only trying to get them to understand," he said. "The government can't do this alone. Corporations, voluntary organizations need to step up to the plate and be partners with government."

Medicare beneficiaries have two decisions to make, Firman said. The first is whether or not to enroll. The second is which plan to join.

"Medicare Part D is voluntary and offers choices," McLellan said. "It brings lower costs and better benefits, but it does mean that people need to make a choice."

In addition, more than 7 million Medicare beneficiaries who are low-income are eligible for extra help. "This is a no-brainer," Firman said. "If they are eligible, they will have 85 to 100 percent of their benefits covered for the rest of their life."

With the roll-out, Firman added, "we are going to make sure every one of those 42 million Medicare beneficiaries by the spring are no longer confused. They'll know what to do."

More information

To learn more about the new program, visit My Medicare Matters.

SOURCES: Nov. 22, 2005, news conference with Mark McClellan, M.D., administrator, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and James L. Firman, president and CEO, The National Council on the Aging and chair, Access to Benefits Coalition

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