STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Some of the government's biggest obligations are in Medicare. Two million baby boomers could sign up for Medicare prescription drug coverage before the end of this year, as Kelley Weiss reports.
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KELLEY WEISS: Seniors can have a tough time choosing Medicare Part D plans for drug coverage, so they often recruit savvy family members.
M: Yeah, I was in the banking business.
WEISS: That's Scott Mattei, and he's talking about doing real estate appraisals, to be exact, which, he says, is not like helping his mother-in-law enroll in Medicare.
M: Yeah, no. I couldn't relate it. It's more complex than that.
WEISS: He and his mother-in-law, Marsha Mueller, are at the University of the Pacific Pharmacy School's free Medicare enrollment event in a suburb outside of Sacramento. Mueller says she takes nine medications.
M: I just need to find the best way to spend my money. You know, I don't have a lot of money - retired, you know, and Social Security.
WEISS: One expert at the event, Margaret Reilly(ph), works for a nonprofit in Sacramento that helps explain Medicare benefits. Reilly says Congress created offices like hers around the country.
M: I think signing up for Medicare is a little bit like being in purgatory and you need somebody to help you get out of there.
WEISS: This year, here's what Reilly's telling seniors: they'll see fewer Part D plans because of the new federal health care law. California, for example, had 47 last year and now there's 30. And, Reilly says, most seniors won't have a co-pay for many preventive services.
M: The bone density test, prostate cancer screening for men, there's now actually more of an annual physical. Doctors are going to be busy.
WEISS: About three million seniors will have to choose new Medicare advantage plans because the old ones don't offer all the benefits required under new federal regulations. And, Reilly says, there's now a discount for seniors who take expensive brand-name drugs and fall into the infamous doughnut hole.
M: In 2011, if you reached the gap, right now, folks are paying 100 percent of the cost of that medicine, by next year they'll pay 50 percent and the plan will pay 50 percent and they'll move through the gap at the same rate without paying same amount of money.
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WEISS: OK, so we know about some of the changes and one way to get help, but there's another option.
M: Let's take it all the way back, Jeff, and we'll put your zip code in here, OK? Then it'll...
WEISS: Ross Blair is the CEO of Plan Prescriber. He's at a Sacramento call center with Jeff Orwig(ph) going through Plan Prescriber's website - that compares Medicare plans. Orwig's self-employed, turns 65 next month and takes four pricey prescription drugs.
M: I've had open heart surgery, so my health insurance over the years has been very expensive.
WEISS: He says the official Medicare.gov website is frustrating.
M: Well, it's sort of a joke for me because three different times it wouldn't even let me on the site to decipher what I wanted to learn.
WEISS: Last year, Blair says, one-and-a-half million people used his website - one of several designed to help seniors. He says it's a free service because insurers pay Plan Prescriber a commission for new customers. After plugging in Orwig's medications, Blair goes over the costs.
M: And you can see the savings range anywhere from $500 up to $3,200 a year. Not all plans are created equal. It's really important to look at all the alternatives that are available out there.
WEISS: For NPR News, I'm Kelley Weiss in Sacramento.
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