Confusion over new Medicare plan common

By Kevin Wilson

With the startup of the new Medicare prescription drug program, a nationwide problem seems to be consumer confusion. However, locals familiar with health care are optimistic that the program will eventually be an improvement over previous prescription programs.

The program, which began on Jan. 1, requires people to choose from among dozens of competing private insurance plans.

With confusion apparent, the government increased from 150 to 4,000 the number of workers at a pharmacy help line.

The poorest people in the program have a specific plan chosen at first for them; those with higher incomes have to pick one. People who struggle with a selection often turn to their pharmacists.

Richard Haverland, a pharmacist at C.J.’s Pill Box in Portales, was contacted for comment Friday. He passed along a message that the program was “a mess” and was keeping his pharmacy very busy, and could not be reached for further comment.

Meanwhile, Clovis Mayor David Lansford, a pharamacist of 24 years, is concerned that the plan will become a heavy burden to taxpayers.

“I’m sure a lot of customers will find this a good deal to them,” Lansford said. “But it comes at a cost — these prescriptions aren’t cheap.

“I’m concerned that we’ve started something that in years to come will be very costly to the taxpayers,”

With over 40 plans to choose from, the burden of educating the customer has been put on pharmacists, Lansford said, even though pharmacists are not allowed to sway customers to a specific plan.

“There’s probably as many as 40 options (plans) in New Mexico,” Lansford said. “People are confused about what to sign up for, and we (pharmacists) are prohibited from advising on specific plans,” he said.

Pharmacists at both Walgreen’s and Wal-Mart said they could not answer media inquiries and referred all questions to their respective corporate offices.

All pharmacists did say they are trying to make available as many pieces of information as possible, ranging from pamphlets to Web sites to magazine and newspaper articles. That’s the philosophy that Roosevelt General Hospital Administrator James D’Agostino is following as well.

“As we’ve gotten information, I’ve just distributed the information to employees,” D’Agostino said. “Once we get it down so it’s totally understandable, we’ll be a resource that people can call.”

D’Agostino admitted that the plan was “extremely confusing,” but added that an online questionnaire at www.medicare.gov is the best way to tailor an appropriate prescription plan. The best advice D’Agostino could give was to be thorough in looking for the appropriate plan and supplementary insurance offers.

“On the surface, it appears that (the new program is) going to be much better,” D’Agostino said. “It’s all in what your diagnostic needs are.”

Questions can also be directed to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at 1-800-Medicare or http://www.cms.hhs.gov.

Medicare spokesman Gary Karr said millions of people are getting their prescription drugs through the new program, despite the glitches.

“We certainly acknowledge there have been some problems,” Karr said. “This is a $30-$40 billion program. It’s a big transition for many people.”

Andy Jackson of Freedom Newspapers and The Associated Press contributed to this report.