Throughout the country, senior citizens are anxiously sorting through medication lists and co-payments associated with the new Medicare Part D prescription benefit; in California alone, there are 48 prescription drug plans offered. If they fail to make their choice by the May 15 deadline, they’ll be required to pay 1 percent of their monthly premium for every month that elapses between May and the month they eventually enroll; since the next enrollment period begins in November, the lowest possible penalty is 7 percent. Mike Leavitt—Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services—said the government wants as many retirees enrolled as possible by May 15, despite pressure from a vocal minority of congressional Democrats and Republicans—including Santa Barbara Congresswoman Lois Capps—to extend the deadline until December 31.
Phone lines at the county’s Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program (HICAP) are ringing off the hook, according to Program Manager Bill Pate. While the program usually counsels about 150 people per month, lately the number has jumped to about 50 people per day, he said. “The problem is, the people deciding are fairly elderly,” said Gary Forssell[TK], the pharmacist at Scolari’s on Milpas Street. “And insurance companies haven’t made it easy to get the information. What they really need is a way to compare how much it’s going to cost with each of the plans.” Forssell[TK] said that in the first few months of the new program, he was mostly assisting lower-income seniors who’d been enrolled automatically by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and had no idea which plan they were in. This second wave of confused beneficiaries tends to be people who either had insurance or take little or no medication