- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006


Hundreds of thousands of older Americans who travel for extended periods face an added requirement in the selection of Medicare drug coverage: Choosing a plan that goes with them.

As they try to select coverage plans by a May 15 federal deadline, government officials and advocates are reminding “snowbirds” and “sunbirds” — retirees who live large parts of the year in different states — to pick national plans and not the dozens of regional ones that won’t cover them or would cost extra at their temporary homes.

States that take in temporary residents don’t have contingency plans if seniors discover their Medicare choice won’t work elsewhere. State and federal officials and advocates say those in that situation would have to wait to change plans until an open-enrollment period in the fall.

Merle Kearns, head of the Ohio Department of Aging, said there’s a concentration of snowbirds and sunbirds who split time between Florida’s west coast and Ohio each year, but they usually spend more time in their temporary homes than the 90-day maximum pill supply covered by most prescriptions.

Mr. Kearns and some other government officials use advertising, press attention and counselors at senior centers or telephone hot lines to avoid such problems.

Sandy and Fred Gibson leave Fort Myers Beach, Fla., in May to spend five months at their Lake Erie beachfront home in Port Clinton, Ohio. They haven’t thought about a portable Medicare coverage plan because they can’t figure out if that would be cheaper than the $100 monthly premium and $348 out-of-pocket they pay now for 90-day supplies of eight medications.

“Now, at least we know we’re covered,” said Mrs. Gibson, 66. “We order our medication over the phone, our insurance plan has a pharmacy in Ohio, and if we see our doctor in Florida, we can buy medicine down here.”

The Gibsons are among the 43 million Americans eligible for Medicare’s new prescription-drug benefit. The 2003 legislation was intended to help seniors keep up with the rising cost of medicine, but critics say its complexity is discouraging people from signing up.

“This is a new program, and people are trying to learn about it, and concerns about travel are questions people need to ask,” said Scott Parkin of the National Centers on Aging. “It could be a problem, but we probably won’t see this until more people start heading north.”



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