Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Few snags with Medicare deadline

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor


For more information, call (800) 633-4227 or go to www.medicare.gov; or call the state's Sage PLUS health insurance assistance program at (888) 875-9229.

spacer spacer

Two agencies that help the elderly reported relative calm yesterday as the clock ticked toward the midnight deadline to enroll in the Medicare Part D prescription drug program.

Many of those who did wait until the last minute decided they just weren't ready to decide because of the complexity of cost comparisons, said Jackie Bolan of AARP's Hawai'i office, who has been answering calls and e-mails from elders seeking information on the new program.

"When I'm reading them what their costs would be, in some cases it sounds like they would be paying more, even though that may not be the case," she said. "So they are using caution and are saying they can't make the decision right now and they'll wait and pay the penalty."

The relative calm here was not typical. Across the country, thousands of seniors and people with disabilities jammed Web sites, phone lines and enrollment seminars to help them decide whether to join the prescription-drug program. Federal officials promised that people who could not get through but left a message would be given the chance to enroll later.

Yesterday's sign-up deadline applied to people who have no other drug coverage and cannot qualify for low-income subsidies. Those who miss the deadline will pay a penalty if they sign up later. Their costs will rise by 1 percent of the national average premium per month until they enroll and their next chance won't be until January. That will mean a 7 percent, or $2.51 a month, increase.

Seniors enrolled in the program will be able to join or change plans every year from Nov. 15 to Dec. 31, starting this year.

Medicare officials say about 37 million people on Medicare now have some form of drug coverage, including more than 9 million who joined during the past six months. Most of the others have coverage from former employers, the federal government or the military, HMOs or low-income programs.

An estimated 186,157 seniors in Hawai'i are eligible for Medicare Part D, but 150,000 of them have prescription drug plans that match or exceed the new federal program. Heading into the final weeks of enrollment, officials estimated that 10,000 had signed up for new plans, leaving an 26,000 who could benefit from Medicare Part D.

"Most of the people we've been in touch with have either made the decision to enroll or looked at it closely and decided it's not for them," said Bruce Bottorff of AARP Hawai'i.

He said that during the past two weeks, the office has been averaging about 10 calls a day from people seeking help with Medicare Part D, not an unusually high volume.

During outreach efforts late last year and earlier this year, AARP talked with 6,000 seniors face to face and sent information to thousands of others, he said, including material translated into five languages.

Bottorff said he's confident the large majority of the state's elderly were aware of the Medicare Part D program and yesterday's deadline. "But there's always a segment, that may not have been reading the newspapers or watching TV or listening to the radio, that's difficult to reach."

Based on the phone calls she received, Bolan said, she fears that people with limited English skills may make up a higher proportion of those who missed the deadline. She's hoping they and others who should have enrolled will come out OK in the end because they might quality for penalty exemptions offered to low-income seniors.

Over at the city's Elderly Affairs Division, Karen Miyake reported about 50 Medicare-related calls yesterday, about half the number the office logged on Friday.

Most of those were seniors with better prescription drug plans who experienced last-minute anxiety and wanted to confirm that they didn't need to enroll.

The office stayed open over the weekend but received only 13 calls on Sunday, Miyake said.

USA Today contributed to this report.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.