Caravan helps seniors understand Medicare plans

Thursday, May 4, 2006

The Medicare Part D Outreach Caravan, which is a partnership between the office of Congressman Roy Blunt and the Southwest Missouri Office on Aging, stopped at the Crowder College Watley Center in Cassville on April 27.

"There is a lot of bad information on the street that says the plan is not as helpful as it is," said Dan Wadlington, public information officer for Blunt's office. "We want to give seniors as much opportunity as we can to get the information and learn what is offered through the plan.

"Seniors are saving money, and they should not be scared off by misleading information," said Wadlington. "Once seniors hear other seniors talking about the plan and get the facts, they will find it is easy to learn what the program offers. It is no more complicated than car insurance and only as complicated as you want to make it."

Seniors who visited the Medicare caravan workshop last Thursday met with experienced counselors to gather information related to Medicare Part D.

"First we take them through our first triage," said Dana Cain, Southwest Missouri Office on Aging staff member. "During the first triage we determine what plan they have and take down basic information from them about their prescription drug needs."

Seniors who are currently on a pension plan that is as "credible" or of equal value to the Medicare Part D plan can remain on their current plan and switch to the Medicare plan at a later date without penalty, said Cain.

Charges will increase 1 percent each month after the May 15 deadline for seniors without a credible prescription drug plan who choose not to sign up for Medicare D. The deadline for sign-ups will not be extended, said Wadlington.

"Some of the people that come in know what plan they want," said Cain, "but most of the time people don't have enough information to make a choice. We personalize a search with the prescription drugs they take."

Counselors use the Medicare website to compare available prescription drug plans. Web tools allow users to list Medicare D plans by cost according to out-of-pocket expense.

"We can show them what is available," said Cain. "This gives them enough information to enroll in a plan and save money."

Seniors enrolling in Medicare Part D must choose from over 40 different plans, which vary in drug coverage, premium costs, deductible costs and co-pay costs.

"The couple I worked with are going to save a small amount, and it is not costing them to get enrolled," said June Huff, Southwest Missouri Office On Aging director of special projects. "We're seeing a lot of success stories. We've had several people who see great savings and even had some that qualified for extra help, which is huge savings."

Although counselors thoroughly explain the prescription plans available, they do not make decisions for seniors, said Cain.

"We don't try to sign them up if the Medicare Plan doesn't work for them," said David John-Michael Hall, Southwest Missouri Office on Aging staff member. "My client had current coverage that was credible, therefore she can switch over to the Medicare plan at any time without penalty."

Even when they are unable to help get individuals switched to the Medicare Plan, counselors spend time answering questions and discussing future possibilities with the seniors who visit the caravan workshop.

"I came to see if the plan could save me on my medication costs," said Shelia Smith. "Although it won't, they were very good and very helpful in answering all my questions."

At the end of a session with Paul and Eleanor Rhodes, Huff also explained that Medicare Part D insured individuals will not be able to switch prescription plans until November of this year.

"We were very satisfied with the process and information," said Paul Rhodes. "We went to talk with them at the Office on Aging main campus in January. At that time we learned that since we don't take many prescriptions, it wouldn't pay to jump right into the plan.

"We decided to enroll now so that we won't get penalized," said Rhodes. "It is a conservative move to enroll. I think we got the right plan and they answered our questions and gave me the information I needed."

Counselors also help individuals apply for the Social Security extra help benefit, which can drop prescription drug plan costs to a $0 deductible and $0 premium plan with a $1 to $3 prescription co-pay.

"I ask every person that comes through here if they qualify for extra help," said Cain. "Many don't know what extra help is, and by asking, I at least get the opportunity to explain the program to them in case they do qualify."

Seniors who receive Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security Insurance or help with Medicare premiums are automatically enrolled in the extra help program.

Single Medicare patients with income less than $14,940 per year and resources less than $11,500 will qualify for the extra help program. Homes and cars do not qualify as resources in determining extra help availability.

Married Medicare patients with income less than $20,040 per year and resources less than $23,000 will qualify for the extra help program. Medicare patients who earn income or support additional family members may also qualify for extra help.

At the end of all Medicare Part D counseling sessions, Southwest Missouri Office on Aging counselors provide each new Medicare prescription plan client with a confirmation number. Counselors also warn new insured individuals that the process might not work smoothly at first.

"Congressman Blunt was very disappointed that the Medicare Plan didn't have a better roll out," said Wadlington, "but when you go from 0 to 30 million people on a plan in three and a half months you are going to find problems.

"Most of the problems have been identified and fixed at this point," said Wadlington. "Congressman Blunt strives to be responsive and active in this process."

Around 4,441 Medicare-insured individuals have signed up for the Medicare Part D plan in Barry County.

The Medicare Plan D caravan will cover every county in Blunt's Congressional district by travelling to Ozark, Aurora, Reeds Spring, Bolivar, Branson, Monett, Cabool and West Plains.

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