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Navigating the Medicare Rx Discount Maze

Experts say go slow and ask questions before choosing your card.

Ask Your Pharmacist

"The pharmacists knows what medications you are taking and would be the best person with the best advice" on discount cards, says Mary Ann Wagner, the president of the Pharmacy Care Alliance, a joint venture of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS) and pharmacy benefit manager at Express Scripts Inc. The alliance is set to market its own discount card that some, though probably not all, big chain drug stores will honor, she says.

Wagner says that the NACDS is working to educate pharmacists about the prescription discount card program so that they can answer beneficiaries' questions. Still, big chains have worried that their busy pharmacists could have trouble handing an onslaught of questions from confused seniors.

"That's a tremendous concern that all of the chains are wrestling with," she says. The bottom line is that some pharmacies may be willing to sit down and help you fill out your enrollment application, while others may just hand you a pamphlet and tell you to call Medicare. "It varies," Wagner says.

Send It In

Once you've checked out discounts, pharmacy locations, low-income eligibility, and existing private drug coverage, you'll be ready to mail in your application. Private sponsors will be responsible for notifying Medicare when they sign you up in order to enforce the one-card-per-beneficiary rule.

Experts warn to make your final decision and then send in a single enrollment application. If you send in more, Medicare will lock you in to the first one that is processed. "Only apply to one. This is not like applying to college," Ginzler says.

After that, many seniors may have to 'go with the flow' on their drug discounts. Remember that if your card winds up being less beneficial than you hoped, you can apply for a new 2005 card starting in November 2004. The program ends altogether in 2006, when the Medicare prescription drug benefit kicks in.

"I don't think that there are any guarantees. We're all learning," Wagner says.

Additional Resources

AARP plans to offer a drug comparison worksheet to help seniors itemize the drugs they use and how much they pay. The worksheet will be available at www.aarp.org at the end of April.

Consumers Union and the California Health Care Foundation will offer a report in mid April with information about prescription drug cards nationwide. It can be found at www.calmedicareoptions.org.

Published March 25, 2004.

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