March 15, 2005
Thousands of low-income Arizona seniors are passing up $600 each for their prescription drugs, but they can still get it — if they sign up soon.
About 88,000 seniors in the state have incomes low enough to qualify for the temporary Medicare program. But so far, few have taken advantage of the benefit, a study commissioned by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America found.
Since the drug discount program began last year, about 17,000 low-income Arizona seniors have signed up for the $600 annual credit, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that oversees Medicare. About $46.7 million in aid is still available.
Seniors who will earn $12,919 or less this year, or no more than $17,320 for a married couple, can receive the $600 credit through the end of March. Starting April 1, the credit drops to $450, and continues to drop by $150 each quarter until the program is over at the end of this year.
"There is money sitting on the table and there is no reason not to pick it up," said Gary Karr, a Medicare spokesman. "They’re missing out on major help for prescription drugs."
The temporary program started last year to give Medicare enrollees some financial relief until Medicare’s new prescription drug benefits kick in next year.
The process of signing up for a drug discount card scared off many seniors, local outreach specialists said.
With dozens of cards being offered by health care companies, seniors have been confused about which one to choose, said Ann Marie Grande, program manager for the benefits assistance program at the Area Agency on Aging.
Signing up also requires seniors to gather information, including their income and other financial resources, the prescription drugs they use, the doses they take, how often they take their medication and the prices they pay.
"I think they’re just getting discouraged because they hear how difficult it is," said Grande. "They were bombarded with information, there were so many cards to choose from and they figured it wasn’t worth it."
Medicare officials tried to make it easier for seniors to sign up by allowing someone else, such as a family member, to do it for them.
They also sent some qualified seniors a randomly selected card so all they had to do was call Medicare with their personal information. Out of the 1.5 million contacted nationwide, about 100,000 signed up.
Karr said other reasons for Arizona’s low enrollment numbers could be the availability of Medicare managed care plans in the private sector, which offer prescription drug benefits, and enrollment in the state’s Medicaid plan, which covers 100 percent of the federal poverty level.
Overall, low-income seniors are a hard population to reach, said Paul Cotton, senior legislative representative for AARP. The group, with an estimated membership of 35 million nationwide, about half of whom are eligible for Medicare, signed up 40,000 people for its Medicare drug discount card, he said. Of that number, about 25,000 qualified for the lowincome credit.
"We would have liked to have more. It just shows the difficulty in reaching lower income folks," he said. "They aren’t as involved in organizations. . . . They’re not as plugged in as a lot of other folks."
But some outreach specialists said the low-income seniors they work with are savvy enough to have established a variety of prescription drug discounts, including free samples from their doctors’ offices, pharmacy discounts and patient assistance programs through drug companies.
With these sources in place, many seniors don’t want to add the discount drug card, even if it gives them another $600 toward their prescriptions, said Martha Taylor, director of the resource center for the State Health Insurance Assistance Program.
"They’ve worked so long and hard getting this system set up, when you say ‘Here’s a new program,’ they’re a little apprehensive," she said.
Also, some seniors worry that the credit will be recovered from their assets after they die, or they simply don’t trust that the federal government is giving them $600 for prescription drugs, said Taylor.
They have listened to agencies such as the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the Social Security Administration, which for years have been telling seniors there’s no such thing as a free lunch, she said.
Some outreach specialists said they are winding down efforts to sign up seniors for the temporary drug discount card program because outreach must now switch to the enormous effort of rolling out the Medicare prescription drug benefit next year.