Seniors Can Now Sign Up for Medicare Drug Discount Cards

Because of the differences among the discount programs, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson urged seniors to spend about two weeks comparing offers before choosing their card. The discount programs are set to become active on June 1.

“You’re going to have time now to do some window shopping,” Thompson told a group of elderly people on Monday as he marked the beginning of the enrollment period for the cards.

While seniors who have signed up for a card cannot switch to another one until November, companies offering the cards can regularly add or drop medications from their plan and change prices.

That flexibility could lead card sponsors to “bait and switch,” Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack warned.

However, Thompson has said that sponsors who tried to dupe seniors would no longer be able to sell their cards.

“We’re going to be supervising these drug card companies very closely,” he said in an interview with MSNBC.

At a forum with seniors on Monday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Medicare’s chief administrator Mark McClellan explained that the program is voluntary and the cards cost up to $30 per year. The most appropriate card for a person depends on what drugs the person takes, where the person lives and whether he or she is open to getting drugs through the mail, they told the audience.

The government has approved 40 cards that are available nationwide and 33 regional cards for the discount program, which is part of the 2003 Medicare bill.

The cards, which may cost up to $30 a year, are meant to help people pay for medicines until the federal health insurance program starts providing some coverage for prescription drugs in 2006.

The Department of Health and Human Services expects the cards to provide Medicare beneficiaries drug discounts between 10 percent and 25 percent off retail prices. Qualifying low-income seniors will also get $600 credit toward drug costs and will not have to pay the enrollment fee.

Critics of the cards argue that they offer little savings compared to other options, including using Internet-based pharmacies and buying drugs from Canada.

A recent Families USA report found Medicare discount card prices for the top ten drugs used by older adults, including Pfizer’s cholesterol-lowering Lipitor, are higher than those negotiated by the federal government for veterans.

The health care consumer group also found Medicare prices were comparable to those at online retailer drugstore.com.

To help seniors choose the most appropriate card, Medicare on April 29 began posting drug price information that compares discounts offered by the cards on its Web site, www.medicare.gov.

Thompson predicted that card sponsors and pharmaceutical companies will be watching Medicare’s new prescription price comparison Web site and will lower prices to attract new subscribers.

“They are going to be very, very cognizant of what other people are charging,” he said.

The sign-up period for the cards began Monday despite card sponsors’ complaints of pricing errors on the Medicare site. Thompson has insisted the prices on the site are correct. But the Associated Press found that the Medicare site and some card Web sites returned different prices Monday for identical drugs, dosages and pharmacies.

“Some (prices) are too high. Some are too low,” Craig Fuller, president of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, a partner in the Pharmacy Care Alliance drug card, told the AP.

Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, said in a statement that “the site currently is incomplete, imprecise and at times misleading.”

“People need to know about all of their drug discount options, not only their Medicare-approved drug discount card options and pharmaceutical assistance programs. Yet the site does not disclose all of these options,” he said.