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Moran Criticizes New Medicare Drug Program

Representative and county health officials said drug benefit plan is too confusing and expensive for seniors.

It has been more than two months since David Ziegler signed up for the new Medicare drug benefit program, and he has yet to receive his prescription card.

Zeigler, a 71-year-old Arlington resident, has had to pay the $900 monthly cost of his medication out of his own pocket, though his pharmacist has provided him with a 10 percent discount.

"You can't do this yourself," Zeigler said of trying to sign up for the Medicare Part D prescription drug program, which took effect at the beginning of the year.

"I've tried any number of times to deal with various officials, and got no results at all."

He is not the only senior in Arlington who has struggled to navigate Medicare Part D's bureaucratic maze. Many others have had difficulty enrolling in the new program, which is supposed to make brand-name and prescription drugs cheaper.

Ziegler was one of several Arlington residents and health care officials who highlighted problems with the program during a press conference last week held by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), who has co-sponsored several bills meant to modify parts of the plan.

Critics say that not only is the program's complexity baffling to some seniors- there are 41 separate private drug plans to choose from- but that the drug plan will not end up saving Medicare's 42 million beneficiaries any money.

"Too many seniors are not taking advantage of the program because it's too confusing and, for many who live in Northern Virginia, too expensive," Moran said.

Congress approved the prescription drug program in 2003, with the measure passing the House of Representatives by a single vote. Beneficiaries began enrolling in mid-November, and coverage kicked in on Jan. 1.

Those who do not register by the May 15 deadline face a 1 percent premium surcharge for each additional month they are not enrolled.

"You need to sign up for this," Moran urged more than 50 seniors at Culpepper Gardens, a senior living complex. "If you don't sign up you will be penalized."

By the end of January more than 14 million people nationwide had joined the drug benefit plan, including millions dual-enrolled in Medicaid and Medicare who should have been automatically transferred into Medicare Part D. Of the 8 million low-income seniors eligible for the coverage, only 1.4 million have signed up thus far.

SOME ARLINGTON RESIDENTS who attended the press conference said they had no problems joining the program and were pleased with the results so far.

Frances Turner said she has seen her monthly bill for medication drop by nearly 50 percent. Turner qualifies as low-income and her insurance provider automatically switched her to Medicare Part D.

"I've been very happy," said Turner, 84. "They just did it for me and now my medication costs less."

Yet in the weeks since coverage began, it has become clear that not everyone has been as satisfied as Turner. A nationwide poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 45 percent of seniors viewed the benefit program unfavorably, compared to 23 percent who hold a favorable opinion of it.

"I've seen a lot of people save money, but I've also seen a lot of people get severely hurt by this thing," said Elyse Politi, a representative of the Arlington Office on Aging.

Retirees have had difficulty getting through to representatives on the Medicare phone hotline, and many of them do not possess the computer skills necessary to register online, Politi said.

Edith Smith, 88, said she had trouble comprehending her options for choosing a provider. "The program is totally chaotic," Smith said. "I was intimidated by it. I didn't understand it at all."

John Eklund, the owner of Preston's Pharmacy on Lee Highway, said his elderly customers have little information about the drug coverage benefit, and many of them have to yet to receive their prescription drug cards.

"I'm spending more time calling insurance companies than I am [teaching] patients about medication," Eklund said.

The prescription drug coverage also includes a "donut hole" that requires beneficiaries to pay a large portion of the costs if their medication is above a certain threshold. Seniors are responsible for one-quarter of their total drug costs up to $2,250. But they must pay the full costs of their prescriptions between $2,250 and $5,100.

Moran views this provision as an unnecessary burden on enrollees. "This program was written by the drug companies for the drug companies, and seniors are left footing the bill," he said.

The Medicare law prohibits the federal government from negotiating lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. As a result, seniors on Medicare Part D pay between 38 and 688 percent more for the seven most popular prescription drugs than those who are covered by the Veterans Affairs Administration, which does negotiate prices, Moran said.

Moran has co-sponsored legislation that would allow the secretary of health and human services to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for cheaper drugs for Medicare beneficiaries. He has also helped introduce a bill that would postpone the deadline for seniors to enroll in the program.

"If we can negotiate with the drug companies, that would save everybody a whole lot of money," Moran said.