Some Black Seniors Wary of Medicare Drug Plan

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Millions have signed up for the Medicare prescription drug benefit, but some seniors in communities of color are holding out. Farai Chideya talks with Dr. John Agwunobi, assistant secretary of health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about what the federal government is doing to reach reluctant African-American seniors.


To find out more about Medicare new drug benefit program and what the Government doing to reach communities of color, NPR's Farai Chideya recently spoke with Dr. John Agwunobi. He is the assistant secretary of health for the Department of Health and Human Services. Those seniors, like Willie Coburn, find the numbers of Medicare drug plans overwhelming. Dr. Agwunobi says having a choice is never a bad thing.

Dr. JOHN AGWUNOBI (Assistant Secretary of Health, Department of Health and Human Services): Congress decided that it felt that one of the things that would make for a valuable program was a choice between options. It would allow individuals to customize their choice to meet their unique needs.

And so far we're seeing great success. More than 37 million of our colleague, friends, families and citizens have either been enrolled automatically, or have elected, decided to enroll. And they've made similar choices. In their daily lives they make choices in the store, they make choices when they buy insurance, they make choices when they buy a motorcar.

And, the truth of the matter is, there are choices in this program. It's delivering on its promise.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

If, for example, someone simply feels they don't understand enough to make an informed choice and for that reason they don't make a choice to enroll, wouldn't they suffer some significant economic setbacks from that choice?

Dr. AGWUNOBI: The truth of the matter is, in our daily lives - in yours, Farai, and in mine, and in everyone lives - we make choices everyday. And there are number of reasons why people might decide to enroll or not to enroll. I'm pretty confident, however, that if you can reach out to everyone in the community who is eligible, and present with the options and the fact that savings are quite considerable for those who do decide to enroll, that many people will elect to enroll. When all is said and done however, like any voluntary program, I fully expect that some will decide not to.

CHIDEYA: But aren't people who need the coverage the most - people who are poor; people who may have literacy issues; who may not have English as their first language; who may not be on the Internet - aren't the people who haven't stepped up to the plate yet, the people who may be most vulnerable? And what are you doing, in particular, are you doing to reach them?

Dr. AGWUNOBI: A number of them are and it's why we must aggressively - that's why we've been working very, very hard these last few weeks, and indeed these last few months, since the benefit first became available - reaching into those communities. Clearly, they need the extra help and that's why I'm so pleased to see that churches in minority communities are beginning to offer counseling to their constituents.

It's why I'm very pleased to see associations and organizations across the nation, organizing and reaching into those communities, to make sure that everyone is given the opportunity to review their options, understand their choices, and make the choices that are right from them.

It's not too late for people to sign up. It's not too late for people to offer their assistance to others who might be trying to sign up.

CHIDEYA: So on a practical level - thinking about the people who are out listening to you right now, who have yet to sign up, who are eligible - what do they need to do in order to make an informed decision about what plan to choose and how to enroll?

Dr. AGWUNOBI: My first advice is be ready to ask questions. Be ready to tell those that you're speaking to - whether it be on the phone, or at a counseling center, the elder center, or at your church - to tell them you have questions and you want your questions answered, that you intend to make a choice, the choice that's right for you. But it's actually a very simple process. Gather together all of your prescriptions - you know the prescription bottles that have the labels on them, put them all on the table in front of you, get your Medicare card and put that on the table in front of you - and before May 15th, make a call. 1-800-Medicare is the number. Call that.

It might take a few minutes to get an operator on the line, but once you have an operator, a counselor, on the other line, it usually takes about 30 minutes to go through a series of questions.

And as I said before, make sure you're asking as many questions as they are. The Medicare benefit is saving, on average, about 50 percent of the drug cost for people who sign up, as opposed to those that don't. On average people are saving about $1,100. This is a good deal.

CHIDEYA: Let's turn to politics. What do you think is at stake for the administration, which has been battered on many fronts, and now seniors- -being, in essence, the strongest voting block in America, getting very antsy about whether or not this plan is going to work - what's on the table in terms of the political side of this?

Dr. AGWUNOBI: Well, I'm not a politician, and I can't speak to politics. What I can speak to is this benefit, the Medicare Part D benefit - which by all approaches, is a benefit that offers for the most individuals who sign up, especially those who are low income, especially those who have lots of medications, but even for those that don't - it's a benefit that offers something that perhaps they didn't have access to before.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Agwunobi, the only problem in separating politics from the medicine is that there may be some people out there who actually say, well, you know what, I don't actually like what's going on in this country, and how am I supposed to trust this drug plan if I don't trust the government? Are you concerned that that may be a perception that prevents some people from taking this plan seriously?

Dr. AGWUNOBI: I would urge anyone who's eligible for the Medicare Part D program to start with the question of, what's best for you the individual? What's best for you the Medicare beneficiary? Ask others who have enrolled. Go out and ask your friends and your neighbors and you colleagues, someone from your church, someone from your bridge club, someone who you know on the street. Ask them if they're enrolled and whether or not they're saving money.

All I can report on is what I'm hearing from around the nation, and those that have enrolled, on average, are saving $1,100 a year. On average, they're saving 50 percent of the cost that they were having to spend out of pocket prior to enrolling. You know, this isn't politics. This is about common sense. It's about those that are eligible having the ability to afford their medication. It's about them having a little left over after they've paid for their prescriptions to be able to eat well and to cover all of their expenses.

I would urge people not to be distracted by the debates and by the discussion that might be going on around them, but to focus, instead, on their needs—what their costs are, and if they're interested in saving money, as a Medicare beneficiary, consider reviewing your options under the Medicare Part D program.

CHIDEYA: Final question. The deadline is just a few days from now. However, if there are still millions of people who are eligible who don't sign up, and later on they start raising a ruckus and saying, hey, you know, maybe I wasn't on the ball or maybe I was ill, will you have kind of a bonus round to get some of them enrolled at a later date?

Dr. AGWUNOBI: You know, the deadline is mandated in the bill, then the law that passed. It's a part of the instructions that we received from Congress. And the truth of the matter is, why would you push off the savings that are available today? By the way, our actuaries tell us that not having a deadline or a delay in a deadline would actually result in fewer people signing up. This is a great program. It's the Medicare Part D Drug Benefit. The truth of the matter is, people who signed up weeks ago have had weeks of savings. People who delay, delay their ability to save on their drug costs.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Agwunobi, thank you so much!

Dr. AGWUNOBI: Thank you.

ED GORDON, host:

Dr. John Agwunobi is assistant secretary of health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, phone companies are giving your call history to the government, and high tech sex ed. Teens can now get answers to sex questions via text messaging. We'll bring you these stories and more, up next on the roundtable.

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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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