- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Senior citizens are saving money through the new Medicare prescription plan, according to surveys released yesterday.

Medicare patients achieved “substantial” savings through the program, called Medicare Part D, said a study by the Lewin Group, a health care research firm.

The study focused on previously uninsured patients with at least one of five common chronic conditions: arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis and respiratory illness. The patients can save an average of 58 percent with at least one plan in their state compared with out-of-pocket prescription drug prices.

AARP, the nation’s largest senior lobby, released the results of a separate survey, showing that 78 percent of those enrolled in the benefit plan say they are satisfied. About 20 percent said they were not saving money under the program.

The findings coincided with the announcement of two grass-roots enrollment campaigns.

Medicare Today, a partnership of senior citizen organizations, announced “Medicare Rx Get Enrolled Week,” which will feature educational events across the country.

My Medicare Matters, an educational campaign sponsored by nonprofits, announced that it will shift the focus of its enrollment efforts toward the children and grandchildren of eligible seniors. They hope younger family members will be able to help seniors access information and assist in the enrollment process.

The drug benefit was created by the federal Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003, and began Jan. 1.

Seniors eligible for Part D who sign up after May 15 will have to wait until the next enrollment period in January and are subject to a penalty. Seniors who enroll later than May 15 because their employer coverage has been canceled are exempt from the penalty.

About 14 million Medicare beneficiaries have not enrolled in the prescription drug program, and the advocacy groups are trying to get 8 million of them to sign up by the deadline.

The government estimates that the remaining 6 million Medicare beneficiaries do not need to enroll because they receive coverage through an employer, the Department of Veterans Affairs or other group.

Mary Grealy, president of the Healthcare Leadership Council, a coalition of health care specialists, said it was “well-documented” that the new prescription drug plan was “changing many lives for the better.” She said politicians and the press were painting an unfair picture of the program.

A study conducted by American Viewpoint, an Alexandria public opinion firm, said negative press reports about the Medicare drug benefit have affected enrollment decisions. Of those who recalled seeing negative reports, 45 percent said they would be less likely to enroll as a result of the coverage.

The study also found the enrollment process to be less complicated than feared. The plan has been widely criticized for its complexity. According to the survey, 72 percent of those enrolled said the process was “very” or “relatively” easy. One in three surveyed were enrolled, and 70 percent of those not enrolled received coverage from an organization other than Medicare.

Although the federal Medicare.gov Web site offers information on the program and tools such as the Medicare Prescription Drug Finder, senior citizens often are not aware that such assistance is available.

A poll conducted in February by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit specializing in health care issues, showed that 47 percent of seniors surveyed have never heard of Medicare.gov and 72 percent have never been online. Only 6 percent have compared plans on Medicare.gov.

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