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Seniors Struggling with Drug Plan Sign Up
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Seniors Struggling with Drug Plan Sign Up

Health Care

Seniors Struggling with Drug Plan Sign Up

Seniors Struggling with Drug Plan Sign Up
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The government created Medicare Part-D to help improve health care for the country's most vulnerable citizens. But millions of seniors are staying away from the drug plan, amid reports that seniors — and pharmacists — find it difficult to maneuver the sign-up process. Leoneda Inge of member station WUNC reports from Durham, N.C.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

It's been three months since senior citizens began signing up for the federal government's ambitious Medicare prescription drug plan. Medicare Part D was created to help improve access to health care for the country's most vulnerable citizens. But critics say they have their doubts. There are reports of seniors and pharmacists having trouble maneuvering the drug sign up process for the elderly, some of whom are also poor. Medicare Part D could be a Godsend. But first they must be enrolled. Leoneda Inge reports from Durham, North Carolina.

LEONEDA INGE (Reporter, WUNC):

Unidentified Woman: It is ready, so go ahead and get a number. But in the future, when you drop off a prescription in the morning...

Ms. INGE: The Lincoln Community Health Center sits in the middle of a mostly minority neighborhood near downtown Durham. It's always busy here. The center accepts Medicaid and Medicare, and the pharmacy prepares between 600 and 800 prescriptions a day. So when Medicare Part D was introduced last fall, pharmacist Jennifer Phillips changed gears and began counseling patients on the new prescription drug plan.

Ms. JENNIFER PHILLIPS, (Pharmacist): Back in November, I really didn't know anything. I listened to a lot of teleconferences, read a lot of things in articles and on the internet, and trying to get myself up to speed.

Ms. INGE: Today, Phillips says she's up to speed. But she worries about the clients who sign up for health.

Ms. PHILLIPS: I try to explain everything to every patient, but sometimes they -- you can understand that they just don't get it. They kind of keep asking the same questions over and over. So they all have my phone number. And they all call with their questions. So we try to get every question answered each time that we can.

Ms. INGE: Many health care professional and policy experts have complained about how complicated the Medicare Part D maze is for millions of elderly and disabled people. That may explain why many people still haven't signed up for the benefits. Out of the 43 million people in Medicare, only about 10 percent have signed up on their own. About 10 million people were automatically enrolled. They could be dually eligible for Medicaid and Medicare, and may even be receiving coverage from a former employer.

Still the latest report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, says enrollment numbers are 15 million people below government predictions. Jonathan Oberlander is an associate professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He says a lot more people may sign up as we get closer to the May 15th deadline, but it doesn't look good.

Mr. JONATHAN OBERLANDER, (Associate Professor of Social Medicine, University North Carolina Chapel Hill): It's like the Wild West in Medicare. You've got so many different companies offering so many different plans, and there are so many different choices, that it's really confusing. And I think a lot of folks' reaction is just to be paralyzed by this and to not do anything and sit it out, and that's why the enrollment numbers are so low right now.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Unidentified Woman: Hello, this is Senior PHARMAssist...

Ms. INGE: Senior PHARMAssist is a Durham based non-profit that helps older adults obtain medicine they need and avoid the ones they don't need. Gina Upchurch is executive director. She has talked to a number of seniors confused over North Carolina's 53 different Medicare drug plans. She says folks are confused and many just don't trust the system anymore.

Ms. GINA UPCHURCH, (Executive Director, Senior PHARMAssist): For example, in North Carolina we had a statewide prescription drug benefit, and many of us were out in African American churches and trying to get people signed up. Well, it's disappearing. It disappeared January 1. Many of us have help people sign up for the drug company patient assistance programs; many of them are going away. So here you are as an individual saying, well, they help me do this, and now it's gone. Now, if I sign up for this Medicare thing, will it also go away?

Ms. INGE: Upchurch says they advertise to let people know they're ready and willing to help them figure out the system. But word of mouth seems to work best. That's how 75-year old Christine Johnson ended up in their office earlier this week. Johnson says she wants what one of her best friends has.

Ms. CHRISTINE JOHNSON, (Senior Citizen): Nah. She came here and she got her benefit reduced, and she told me about it and I came down to check to see could I could get it, because me and her is about the same age, and I was paying more than she was; and I was seeing if I could get mine lowered.

Ms. INGE: Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services don't agree with groups like the Kaiser Family Foundation and its breakdown of the Medicare Part D enrollment numbers. New figures should be out next week.

For NPR News, I'm Leoneda Inge, in Durham, North Carolina.

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