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Drugstores Jockey for Medicare Customers

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Drugstores Jockey for Medicare Customers

Health Care

Drugstores Jockey for Medicare Customers

Drugstores Jockey for Medicare Customers

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Seniors eligible for Medicare's new prescription drug benefit will have many plans to choose from in the new year. Some pharmacies are helping to educate them on their options, hoping to strengthen relationships with customers and hang on to business.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Medicare's new Part D prescription drug benefit takes effect January 1st, so seniors are now poring through dozens of options to decide which prescription plan to choose. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that many Medicare recipients are looking to their pharmacist for help, and that's a trend the drugstore industry is trying to encourage. NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

At this Eckerd Drugstore in Raleigh, North Carolina, pharmacists lately are spending part of their time dispensing prescriptions and part of it dispensing advice.

Mr. KEN LOWRY(ph) (Pharmacy Manager, Eckerd Drugstore): Hi. How are you doing this morning? Any questions you think about on Medicare D?

Ms. KATHERINE SMITH(ph) (Retired Bank Clerk): Well, I just have the one question. It says up there...

HOCHBERG: As part of Eckerd's Medicare education program, pharmacy manager Ken Lowry stands near the front door alongside the greeting cards and a display of Christmas tree stands. As customers walk in, he offers them brochures about the Part D drug benefit, invites them to watch a videotape that's playing on a little TV and answers questions from customers, like retired bank clerk Katherine Smith.

Ms. SMITH: There's a thing called a gap or a doughnut hole. Am I right?

Mr. LOWRY: Yes.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah.

Mr. LOWRY: And then you go from--it's $2,250 up to about $5,100 that there's no coverage.

Ms. SMITH: Yes, mm-hmm. Yeah, mm-hmm.

Mr. LOWRY: OK. So it depends on really how much medicine you spend per year.

Ms. SMITH: Yes, mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

HOCHBERG: Education efforts like this are under way at all 1,500 Eckerd pharmacies and you'll find similar programs at CVS, Walgreens and other big drug chains. Most have information tables with stacks of pamphlets and work sheets. They're holding in-store seminars and they've scheduled days for pharmacists to offer one-on-one counseling. Lowry says it's an attempt to reach out to seniors who account for more than a third of the nation's prescription business.

Mr. LOWRY: We just want to be someone they can talk to, that know what they're taking and be able to help them with the decisions that they can make, which plan they need to go on.

HOCHBERG: Of course, aside from being helpful, there's also a business reason why drugstores are promoting themselves as Medicare experts. With the new government benefits, seniors likely will be getting more prescriptions filled, but they'll have lots of options about where to fill them. Some Medicare plans will try to steer customers toward mail order pharmacies or seniors might take their prescriptions to supermarkets or discount stores. Jim Frederick of the trade publication Drug Store News says pharmacy chains want to build goodwill with Medicare recipients to guard against losing their business.

Mr. JIM FREDERICK (Drug Store News): Good drug chains are trying to position themselves as partners in providing this drug benefit. It brings more customers into the stores, more seniors, more of their caregivers, their family members will be in and improves relationships between the pharmacist and the patient.

HOCHBERG: Several chains even are partnering with insurance companies to offer Part D plans that bear their store's name. Rite Aid and Walgreens are among the chains promoting co-branded drug coverage underwritten by such insurers as Cigna and WellCare. Medicare prohibits pharmacists from overtly recommending specific plans to customers but stores can hand out literature pushing their own plans. And Judith Stein of the Center for Medicare Advocacy says seniors should be aware of that if they're looking to their local pharmacy for advice.

Ms. JUDITH STEIN (Center for Medicare Advocacy): A lot of people still have relationships with pharmacists, that still happens, but they need to make sure that they know whether the pharmacist is associated with the sponsor of a Part D plan so they can take that into consideration when they're given advice as to what to choose.

HOCHBERG: Stein's group sent volunteers into chain stores in Connecticut and found little consistency in the type of Medicare information they received. One store recommended only its own co-branded drug plan; another had brochures for several competing plans while a third had no information at all. Stein says some pharmacists may be well versed on the complexities of the new program, but she recommends seniors call their state insurance department or use the Medicare.gov Web site to fully research their options.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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