As Medicare Deadline Nears, Questions Remain

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With the deadline looming to enroll in Medicare Part D prescription drug plan, Ed Gordon talks with Willie Coburn, a senior citizen in Phoenix, Ill., who still has questions about which of the dozens of plans is right for him.

ED GORDON, host:

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

If you've been meaning to sign up for the new Medicare Drug Benefit Plan, time is running out. After midnight Monday enrollment will freeze and prices will go up. The Bush administration has touted its success registering more than 80 percent of eligible subscribers. And according to the White House, more then 70 percent of eligible African Americans have either enrolled or already have drug coverage.

But 83-year old Willie Coburn of Phoenix, Illinois isn't biting. We spoke with her last November to see what she thought of the new program.

Ms. WILLIE COBURN (Illinois Resident): I'm a retiree from my job and I have insurance to cover me for everything for the rest of my life. But I don't understand the Medicare D at all.

GORDON: After the end of our chat she invited us to call her back as we neared the deadline. She thought she might have a better idea of the program by then. So we called her this week. Unfortunately, she's no clearer than she was before.

Ms. COBURN: Like I said, I don't understand Medicare D at all.

GORDON: And according to Ms. Coburn, she's not the only one who's still confused.

Ms. COBURN: Everybody at the Community Center seems to be having major problems with it, too. So they have someone from Medicare that come out and talk with you and nobody seems to want to get Medicare D, for some reason.

GORDON: Though Ms. Coburn receives comprehensive health coverage from her former employee, she was automatically enrolled in Medicare D, but she found the choice of plans overwhelming. And while Part D lowered the cost of two of her medications, it significantly raised the cost of a third.

Ms. COBURN: Say, for instance, I was paying two dollars and the highest I was paying was four dollars. The other day I got prescription for $38, you know. They put me in Medicare D, automatic enrolled me in Medicare D with AARP. But I had to resign from that because it was messing with my retirement benefits. My insurance pays everything. I have life insurance. I have, I could go to any hospital I want to, any doctor I want to, and I get a couple of bonuses a year from it.

And we have a store that you can go to - like a retail - we go to store and get stuff cheaper.

GORDON: As it happens, cost is only one reason she dropped her Part D coverage and why many of her friends at the community center won't to be signing up. Politics also plays a role.

Ms. COBURN: I don't think anything is a good thing that the president is doing. It's something in it political, and I don't want to be in no political insurance. And it's something about the president is pushing it. He wants four million more people to join because they're joining too slow. It's something they're getting out of it. It's something like the HMO. HMO insurance is no good either. Once you get stung by something, you just don't like it anymore.

GORDON: That's 83-year old Willie Coburn of Phoenix, Illinois who retired from Lever Brothers more than 15 years ago.

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AARP Tips for Choosing a Drug Plan

The AARP senior citizen advocacy group is acting as a referral source to link up seniors with people in their areas who can help them, over the phone or in person, decide which of the dozens of available prescription drug plans is best suited to their needs.

Tips for choosing a plan, from AARP's George Kelemen:

• You don't need to analyze all of the 50-odd plans available. By simply applying your personal needs, you can narrow your choices down to four or five plans that are right for you — start your analysis there.

• Use the "three C" rule when analyzing a plan:

Cost: Figure out what you are paying currently for prescriptions.

Coverage: Make list of current prescriptions and dosages.

Convenience: If you have a relationship with a local pharmacy, make sure that pharmacy is part of the plan.

• If you miss the Monday, May 15 deadline for Part D of the Medicare program, the next opportunity to enroll is November 15. A late enrollment penalty will be assesed if you are eligible for enrollment on the May 15 deadline, equal to 1 percent of the average premium for that year for each month delayed, on top of the plan selected.

• If you have little or no need for Medicare prescription drug coverage, sign up anyway — it's great protection against future drug price increases.

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