Alaskans on Medicare will be able to enroll in November for a new prescription drug benefit, the regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday in Juneau.
"It's the most significant change in health care in the last 40 years," James Whitfield said during a visit to Alaska from his Seattle office. The new benefit, passed by Congress and President Bush in 2003, shows the country is continuing to fulfill the promise it made with the passage of Medicare in 1965, he added.
Prescription drugs have emerged as a much bigger part of health care than they were four decades ago, Whitfield said.
A nationwide study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, released in August, projected that Alaska seniors would save an average of $586 a year on prescription drugs purchased through Medicare after the plan goes into effect Jan. 1.
The cost of the plan will average $32.50 a month with an annual $250 deductible.
"It is not an entitlement program," he said. But for many it will mean not having to choose between paying for prescriptions and buying food.
The drug plan will work through private insurance companies. Eleven organizations that have been approved nationally also are committed to providing the benefit in Alaska.
People eligible for Medicare will be able to enroll for a plan between Nov. 15 and May 15.
A 1 percent increase on monthly premiums will be added for people who sign up late, Whitfield said.
Medicare has a Web site set up to help people select a provider, with consideration of the medications they need and their pharmacies where they buy them, as well as how much prescriptions currently cost them, Whitfield explained.
Help is available at medicare.gov. People also can get help by calling 1-800-MEDICAR - (800) 633-4227.
Whitfield advises Medicare recipients to look for help from local senior centers in choosing the plan that is best for them.
Meanwhile, an Alaska law passed this year will extend SeniorCare, a state drug plan saving low income seniors about $120 a month. The state program will continue through the summer of 2007.