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New Medicare drug plan confuses some seniors

Monday marks the first day new prescription drug cards from Medicare are available to seniors — offering savings on prescription drugs.

For millions of seniors it’s almost like being back in school — a national campaign to educate seniors about the new prescription drug discount cards.

“You have almost a month to pick the card you want,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga. 

In Smyrna, Ga., on Monday, after more than an hour of instruction, some of Gingrey’s pupils were starting to catch on.  But others were not. 

“I think it was so confusing that I couldn’t think of the questions to ask!” said senior citizen Herbert Brinker.

Janice Harbin added, “If you take a whole lot of medications a month to keep functioning, you can’t change from card A to B to C off and on during the month and during the year, you have to stay with the same card.”

Here are the basics:

  • The program is voluntary — no one is required to buy any discount card.
  • The federal government estimates savings of 10 to 25 percent for their prescriptions, starting June 1.
  • The card costs no more than $30.
  • Low-income seniors get an additional $600 benefit.

The confusion stems from the fact that there are dozens of different cards backed by Medicare but sold by private companies, including pharmaceutical and insurance companies — and it’s up to seniors to decide which card is best.

Even AARP, a key supporter of the program cards, pokes fun at how confusing it is in a TV commercial: “Call AARP for a free brochure that explains it in simple English.”

At a workshop in Washington, D.C., Monday, federal officials urged seniors to do their homework — compare prices online or, if you’re not computer savvy, call the Medicare information center for help at 1-800-MEDICARE.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson advises: “Window shop. Find the best price, then get your card.”

But critics — mostly Democrats — say the savings are illusory.  “Drug companies are already raising their prices so that they can offer discounts without losing a dime in profits,” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The discount card program expires at the end of next year.  That’s when the permanent Medicare prescription drug benefit takes over — a program that’s even more controversial and even more complicated.