Most of the cards are set to be administered by pharmacy benefit management companies, or PBMs. Those companies use restricted drug formularies, bargaining power, and other tools to negotiate lower bulk drug prices for customers.
Most of the companies don't expect to make much money on the discount card program, but instead are using it to build brand loyalty among seniors. They will have to choose which drug plan they want, said Mark Merritt, president of the Pharmacy Care Management Association, a PBM industry group.
Merritt declined to estimate how much savings most seniors would achieve with their prescription discount cards, though he said most discounts should fall within the government's estimate.
"The number could vary obviously and I'm sure it will vary," he said. HHS officials are preparing to launch media campaigns through television, print, radio, and direct mailings, encouraging seniors to visit or to call 1-800-MEDICARE where they can access an agency program that helps calculate which card is best for individual seniors.
The Bush administration's card program has sparked concern among several advocacy groups worried that widespread confusion over discount card choices and benefits could hinder its effectiveness. Several groups, including AARP, are preparing to launch educational programs to help seniors choose cards.
Ron Pollack, executive director of the consumers group Families USA, criticized the program in an interview, saying that the discounts would do little to hold down prescription drug prices, which have gone up at least 10% per year since the mid-1990s.
"The question is, discounts of what price? If prices continue to go up as they have for the last decade, then seniors are not going to feel like they got a great deal at all," he told WebMD.
Find out what experts say about how to choose your prescription drug discount card.