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Medicare Enrollment Deadline Approaches

See Also:
Medicare Enrollment: Interview with SSA's Mike Korbey

Doris Eason is a bright-eyed, 73-year-old Cleveland woman who takes a lot of medications. She's here today at the Fairhill Center for Aging to sign up for prescription drug coverage under Medicare Part D.

Doris Eason: This is for emphysema, this is for my asthma, this is for allergies. (laughs) I'm a walking prescription, that's why I came here to get some help. When you're on a fixed income, it's hard, you know?

But it's also hard to figure out which of the plans Eason qualifies for will save her the most money. Helping her sort through the maze on a laptop computer is Access to Benefits counselor Dee Jeeter.

Dee Jeeter: I've had doctors call and say I don't have a clue what's going on here. To Eason: I'm just putting in your dosages, because that can have an effect on the cost. Like those you take twice a day or three times a day. Well, there's a lot of plans. I think you qualify for all 44.

Eason is what's known as double-eligible. She qualifies for Medicare because of her age and Medicaid because of her income. She was automatically enrolled in a transitional drug plan last December, but now she's considering other plans.

Dee Jeeter: This first plan is AARP. This is what you're currently enrolled in. Now what this sheet is telling us is that your annual drug costs with this plan would be $2,356 a year. Your Prilosec would be $5 under the AARP plan.

Doris Eason: I heard about them, I think I want AARP.

Dee Jeeter: Well, then, let's give you AARP then.

Eason qualifies for a low-income subsidy from Social Security to pay for her monthly insurance premium, so under Medicare Part D her total cost for prescriptions will be about $28 a month. Eason is exactly the kind of person the Greater Cleveland Access to Benefits Coalition, a group of 47 area aging agencies, has targeted to help. Jane Fumich is director of the Cleveland department of aging and co-chair of the coalition.

Jane Fumich: We know that through the Coalition's work, we've helped about probably approaching 8,000 people now with prescription drug savings. We've also know we've helped about 1,600-1,700 enroll in the low-income subsidy.

What Fumich doesn't know is how many of the 52,000 people in the region eligible for coverage her group still has to reach. She says it's the federal government that's been keeping track of those figures. But Fumich believes what she's seeing in greater Cleveland supports the government's claim that Seniors who qualify for the low-income subsidy are saving about $2,300 a year. Her colleague Mary MacNamara, a social worker at the Fairhill Center and field coordinator for the coalition, says even people with higher incomes are seeing substantial savings.

Mary MacNamara: On average, for people who don't qualify for the extra help, the savings average about 50% of the cost of their prescription drugs.

Dr. Nancy Johnson would agree. She's a retired OBGyn who didn't buy prescription drug coverage when she turned 65. Now a few years later, she's taking more medications and paying a lot more at the pharmacy.

Nancy Johnson: I think last year I paid about $3,000 for the whole year.

Last December, Johnson decided to sign up for Medicare Part D. She says it was hard to figure out, but once she got the coverage, it kicked in right away.

Nancy Johnson: Went to the pharmacy and got my medications. And I was amazed at the fact that, particularly for some of the more expensive medications, I saved a lot of money. I think I probably save over half. I'm very happy about that.

Apart from the savings, aging specialists like Mary MacNamara say there's another good reason to look into the coverage, even if you don't think you need it now. That's because you'll pay a 1%-a-month penalty permanently if you sign up late.

Mary MacNamara: If you have insurance, the homework is to find out if it's credible and then you won't be penalized if you decide to switch to Part D later.

With the May 15 deadline looming, time is running short. But MacNamara and other senior advocates say there's plenty of help available over the next week to choose the best plan. Karen Schaefer, 90.3.