Some recipients say benefits of Medicare drug plan add up
Initial problems overshadowed success stories
WASHINGTON -- It wasn't easy to sign up, but now that she's enrolled in the new Medicare drug benefit, Ruth Dike said it has made a big difference in her finances.
The cost of her medicine ranges from about $10 to $15 a month, vs. at least $100 a month before she joined, she said.
''It's just a relief that I can buy the medications I need without having to worry how I'm going to pay for them," said Dike, 74, of Casper, Wyo.
Congressional supporters of the program worry that problems that marked its beginnings have drowned out success stories like Dike's.
Dike said the enrollment process was horrendous. Her friends had the same problem.
''None of them could do it themselves," she said.
She enrolled with the help of the local senior center, and now spends $2 to $5 for each prescription. She takes medicine for high blood pressure, arthritis, an ulcer, and her thyroid, and she uses a potassium supplement. By year's end, she estimates she will have saved about $1,000.
Her story fits the profile that Republican lawmakers and some advocacy groups have stressed in recent weeks.
Once older people enroll in one of the drug plans offered, about three-quarters of those beneficiaries say they are satisfied, according to the Medicare Rx Education Network. The organization includes patients groups like the Alzheimer's Association and trade associations representing insurers and drug makers.
''Seniors who have enrolled are finding the benefit worth the time and effort it takes to check out the plans and sign up," said John Breaux, former senator and Democrat of Louisiana, who is the group's honorary chairman.
Most of the calls that lawmakers get from constituents about the drug benefit still come from people who complain. But Max and Donna Dougherty of Bedford, Iowa, contacted Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, to let him know they liked the program.
''I was listening to the Democrats complain about this and calling it a joke. And some of the Republicans were saying it's a money pit," Donna Dougherty said. ''I'm here to tell you this is a godsend for us."
She said that choosing a drug plan was easier for them because the local pharmacy would contract with only one of the insurers offering prescription drug coverage.
Her husband is recovering from lung cancer, had a kidney transplant, and has heart disease, so he takes numerous prescriptions. She estimated the benefit will save the couple $300 to $350 a month.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt estimated that the average beneficiary will save about $1,100 because the government is subsidizing their drug purchases. The savings depends on the patient's drug needs and the plan they choose. Some beneficiaries may actually end up paying more for their drugs when including a deductible and monthly premiums.
Representative Pete Stark, Democrat of California, acknowledged that some older people are saving money. But he said beneficiaries could have saved even more if Republicans had allowed the government to negotiate drug prices on their behalf. Instead, insurers do that.
Doris Brown of Sikeston, Mo., never had drug coverage before January. She has Parkinson's disease and takes two expensive medications for it. The majority of her income comes from her monthly Social Security check.
''I was spending over $5,000 a year on medicine," she said. ''I was not able to do much of anything else."
Brown said she spent about one work week seeking out information on her options. Still, her doggedness was worth it because she is spending about $230 less per month on prescriptions, she said.
''It's saving me money. That's what's important," she said.