Reviews mixed for Medicare drug plan

LAWRENCEVILLE - Georgia seniors are in the midst of wading through various prescription drug benefit programs newly presented by Medicare and have until May 15 to find the plan that's right for them.

During this six-month enrollment period, seniors can choose a plan best suited for their needs based on annual medication costs and the type of medication they take.

The program, which President Bush called the "greatest advance in health care for seniors and Americans with disabilities since the creation of Medicare 40 years ago," has already received mixed reviews.

State Rep. Tom Price, R-Marietta, said he thinks the time allotment for seniors to choose a plan is too short and is penning a bill to push back the deadline from May 2006 to June 2007.

"When discount prescription cards were put into place seniors had 18 months to sign up for the program and it seems to only make sense in a program that is absolutely new to allow seniors a much longer time to evaluate where they are and what would be best," Price said.

Gwinnett resident, Dan Fraro, said he's not thrilled with the way the plan is presented to seniors.

"Anytime you get the government involved in anything it's usually complicated," Fraro said.

Seniors have the option of signing up via phone or Internet, but Fraro doesn't like either option.

"If you're not computer literate you're at the mercy of someone else. If you don't have a computer that's another problem. Sometimes you don't know how to use it even if you go to the library." he said.

For seniors who aren't computer literate and want to discuss plan options, they can do so at GeorgiaCares, part of the Department of Human Resources Division of Aging Services. Designed to educate and help seniors, GeorgiaCares has trained more than 400 volunteers to assist people enrolling into the prescription drug benefit program.

The most important advice Kirsten Barge, GeorgiaCares program consultant, gives to seniors is to make a list of the medications they take and make sure the list of medications is included in the plan.

"The plans vary in price. Some have deductibles and some don't. Some premiums are less than $20, while others are more than $50," Barge said. "They want to provide people with options, and it's all about allowing people to make choices."

In most states, beneficiaries will be able to select from at least 40 plans. Some plans offer prescription drug coverage only and others offer managed care that covers the full range of Medicare services, such as doctor's office visits.

Barge said it takes between 30 minutes to an hour for seniors to go through the online enrollment form and once personal information is entered the program automatically lists the top five suitable plans.

"I think this is a step forward," Barge said. "This is part of the (Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003) and a way for people who have never had prescription drugs before to get prescription drugs."