Medicare Drug Program Goes Live

Medicare's new prescription drug program takes effect Sunday. People who have already signed up will begin paying monthly premiums. A look at five potential beneficiaries illustrates retirees' approach to the program.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Coming up, the battle for Wisconsin.

But, first, at midnight tonight, the biggest change to Medicare in it 40-year history goes into effect. People who signed up for the new prescription drug program will be able to start using it. NPR's Joanne Silberner has been keeping track of four people through the sign-up process and she's checked in to see how they're doing.

JOANNE SILBERNER reporting:

At the Masonic Village assisted living facility in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, 90-year-old Cash Hollinger(ph) takes seven prescription drugs.

Mr. CASH HOLLINGER (Masonic Village Resident): More than I like to admit. I have prostate cancer and I also have had trouble with my lungs and heart, too.

SILBERNER: He's been getting his drugs through the Veterans Administration, but his daughter, Patty Longenecker(ph), is worried about a prostate cancer drug that the VA doesn't carry. So she's decided on a Medicare plan from AARP.

Ms. PATTY LONGENECKER (Cash Hollinger's Daughter): We are definitely going to go with that. It was, I felt, very reasonable monthly rates. I think it was $25 a month.

SILBERNER: But she hasn't actually signed her father up yet. His health problems have preoccupied her. She's figuring on signing him up in January or February, in which case, his coverage will begin the following month. Ed Rubiera(ph) of Orlando signed up on his own. He's timed it so he'll need to fill a prescription for an expensive blood pressure drug right at the beginning of the year. Rubiera is not worried about the long lines being predicted by some pharmacists.

Mr. ED RUBIERA (Orlando, Florida): Yeah, there's one prescription I will refill the 2nd or 3rd of January, as soon as I can get out there, and it's going to cost me $28 instead of the $63.46 that I paid the last time.

SILBERNER: Charles Hall(ph) is having a more difficult time of it. His 81-year-old mother, Thelma Robinson(ph), is on 11 drugs. Hall had hoped his mother would qualify for financial assistance so he sent a letter to Medicare. He looks at what he got in return.

Mr. CHARLES HALL (Having a Difficult Time with Medicare): The letter that I received from the Medicare prescription drug assistance explains why they believe that she does not qualify based on income. But she can apply for one of the many plans that they have. And that's what's sort of confusing.

SILBERNER: He's irritated about the lack of financial help. With just her Social Security income, his mother would qualify. But she's got a small pension that puts her above the limit. The pension goes mostly for medical costs, so Hall is going to contest the denial. He plans on going to a government office to check it out in January. With two jobs and taking care of his mother, he's busy.

Mr. HALL: Just a lot to absorb because I--you know, this is not the only thing that my concerns are because I'm a caregiver. And in that, you have to do a lot of different things--I mean, everything, as a matter of fact.

SILBERNER: Jean Myzel(ph) of Chevy Chase, Maryland, admits she procrastinated.

Ms. JEAN MYZEL (Chevy Chase, Maryland): I did wait till the last minute. It was sort of silly.

SILBERNER: She finally called Medicare to sign up on Thursday and was put on hold.

Ms. MYZEL: It was just crowded, crowded, crowded lines. Finally, they said, you know, that--on the recording that you'd be better off to wait till the end of the day. So I called at 10, sat on the phone till 11 and had nobody, you know, come back to me yet.

SILBERNER: So she called yesterday morning. After a 20-minute wait, she signed up for an AARP plan because they sent her a detailed explanation of their benefits and the plan will allow her to buy her drugs at her beloved corner pharmacy. Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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