WASHINGTON -- Seniors can get help finding the best prescription drug discount card for their needs beginning next month, when Medicare expects to release detailed information about the costs of approved programs.
The prescription drug discount cards mark the first stage of a planned Medicare prescription drug benefit. Seniors who use the cards can expect to buy prescription medicine at discounts between 10 percent and 25 percent.
Medicare beneficiaries can enroll in a discount card plan in May and start using the card to buy discounted drugs on June 1.
But they can start checking their options beforehand, starting next month. Basic information will be available then. Seniors can compare the programs' enrollment fees and the costs of the drugs they take by the end of the month.
Seniors also can get help sorting out the prescription drug choices by calling 1-800-Medicare.
The Health and Human Services Department said Thursday that 28 companies were given approval to offer prescription drug discount cards. Secretary Tommy Thompson predicted competition and publication of drug prices would lower drug prices for all consumers.
"My message today is that savings are on the way, and they're going to be arriving very soon," Thompson said.
Medicare plans an education campaign to teach seniors about drug card options. The plans include an advertising campaign, a short publication mailed to every Medicare recipient and community assistance through state health insurance assistance programs.
The Social Security Administration plans to notify low-income people who may be eligible for a $600 credit available annually toward the purchase of prescription drugs. Older people with incomes less than $12,569 and couples with income less than $16,862 may qualify for assistance.
Seniors sign up for the drug discount cards with a private provider, not Medicare. Card providers can charge an annual enrollment fee up to $30, and the fee may vary by state. Officials said they expect one-quarter of card providers to enroll older people without charge. The fee is waived for those who qualify for low-income assistance.
The companies that participate in the discount card program must offer drugs in 209 categories and offer three choices in each category. Officials said generic drugs will be offered where available.
Some card sponsors may provide more than one discount program. Beneficiaries enrolled in Medicare Advantage health maintenance organizations would be automatically enrolled in discount drug card programs if their plan offers one. Medicare approved 43 sponsors to offer cards to those enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans.
To enroll in a drug discount program, Medicare beneficiaries will be asked to choose a prescription drug card and submit basic information to the sponsor about the drugs they take and how close they are to a pharmacy. Medicare will verify the applicant's eligibility.
Medicare beneficiaries can enroll in only one approved card. Except in special circumstances, seniors can switch to a different card only once during an open enrollment period between Nov. 15 and Dec. 31.
Medicare stamped a seal of approval on 28 private sponsors seeking to offer a prescription drug discount card to program beneficiaries.
Medicare plans to make detailed information on each card, including drug prices and enrollment fees, available by late April. Medicare beneficiaries can purchase drug discount cards beginning in May and begin using them on June 1.
Some card sponsors plan to offer drug cards nationally, others only in certain regions. Some sponsors plan to offer Medicare beneficiaries more than one card program.
The following companies plan to offer their Medicare-approved drug cards nationwide:
Aetna Health Management LLC
Caremark Advantage Inc.
Medco Health Solutions Inc.
PMB Plus Inc.
PharmaCare Management Services Inc.
Pharmacy Care Alliance Inc.
Scrip Solutions LLC
SXC Health Solutions Inc.
United Healthcare Insurance Co. (with AARP)
WellPoint Pharmacy Management
Express Scripts Inc.
Argus Health Systems Inc.
Computer Sciences Corp.
WHP Health Initiatives Inc.
AdvancePCS Health LP
On the Net:
Complete list of companies approved to offer national and regional prescription drug discount cards: http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2004pres/20040325.html
On the Net:
Medicare Prescription Drug Discount Program: http://www.cms.hhs.gov/discountdrugs/