The federal government unveiled a computer program last November designed to help Medicare beneficiaries figure out which prescription drug plan best meets their needs.

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Medicare has included a drug benefit since Jan. 1, 2006, but some advocacy groups fear the myriad choices and the program’s complexities could discourage the nation’s elderly and disabled from enrolling.

The program on Medicare’s Web site will allow beneficiaries to plug in such information as the type of drugs they take and how much of a monthly premium or deductible they would be willing to pay. The program will then sort through the plans offered in their communities and list those that meet the beneficiaries’ criteria. Estimates of annual cost are also included.

Mark McClellan, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, acknowledged the process of comparing so many plans can be daunting. However, he said the competition leads to better benefits.

“The alternative is having one drug plan that does not reflect what some want, and that costs more and offers less coverage than what is available now,” McClellan said.

Enrollment for prescription drug coverage began Nov. 15, 2006. The average Medicare beneficiary can expect to save about 50 percent on prescription drug expenses, the Bush administration predicts. The cost to the federal government of subsidizing that coverage is estimated at $720 billion over 10 years.

McClellan also stressed that beneficiaries uncomfortable with computers could call 1-800-MEDICARE with the criteria they consider most important, and workers will do the search for them. Last week, about 800,000 people called the phone bank for help.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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