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Senior citizens over 65 have until Dec. 31 to enroll in the Medicare Prescription Drug Program without penalty - the coverage would begin Jan. 1. Those who have already enrolled in the program can also change their plan, if they wish, during this time. Medicare offers prescription drug coverage (called Part D) for everyone with Medicare. This coverage may help lower prescription drug costs and help protect against higher costs in the future. Historically, Medicare, the national health insurance for older Americans, has not covered medication expenses; but in 2003, U.S. Congress decided to address the growing problem of prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries through developing Part D.
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Medicare beneficiaries, and their family members, should pay attention to Medicare Part D enrollment this month. If a Medicare recipient decides to enroll after Dec. 31 (and never had other prescription drug coverage that is as good or better than Medicare), a one-percent penalty will be charged each month. Even those persons whose prescriptions are paid for by other sources, such as SEARHC, Medicaid or private health insurance (Aetna, Blue Cross, AARP, etc.) are advised to pay close attention to what the prescription drug program offers before Dec. 31.
Persons with private health insurance that covers prescription medications should have received a letter from their health insurance company, telling them whether their current plan is as good as or superior to Medicare Part D - or not. If one does not recall receiving such a letter from their private health insurance company, he or she should call the company to ask for a copy of the letter or to ask that a statement in writing be sent immediately. If the current private plan is as good as the Medicare prescription drug benefit, that person may not want to enroll in Part D.
In order to get the prescription drug benefit, one needs to choose a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan. For persons living in Juneau, there are 45 plans to choose from.
Each plan covers a different combination of prescription medications, serves specific pharmacies, and has a different cost for the deductible, monthly premium and co-payment. Fortunately, there is help available for comparing the plans and considering which plan is best for each individual. One should begin by listing all the types of prescription medications and amounts he or she will need in the coming months.
There are four ways to select a plan and enroll in the program: 1) by paper application; 2) on a particular plan's Web site; 3) on Medicare's Web site; 4) over the telephone (calling the plan or Medicare). Individuals should use whichever method is the easiest for them. Using the Medicare Web site, one should go to www.medicare.gov, then select "Compare Medicare Prescription Drug Plans." The screens will walk one through the process, comparing the various plans to choose from, including the estimated annual cost, cost of deductible, premiums and co-pay amounts. Persons more comfortable using the telephone may call (800) 633-4227 and press "0" after language selection to speak with a person. The experts at Medicare will be able to answer specific questions.
In Juneau, there are trained persons to help: Those eligible for SEARHC are encouraged to call Charlene Sykes at 364-4465. Help is also available from Diana Kreick, 723-2617; Sarah Bosma, 586-4920; or Jessica Hadfield, 463-6177, by appointment.
Marianne Mills is the program director of Southeast Senior Services, which offers home and community based services for older Alaskans throughout the region. SESS is a part of Catholic Community Service and assists all persons regardless of their faith.