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It's All in the Cards

A Weekly Check on Health Care Costs and Coverage

Tuesday, January 4, 2005; Page HE02

Many companies offer Medicare-approved drug discount cards, but millions of senior citizens have not enrolled -- maybe because there are too many options, maybe because they believe they wouldn't save much.

AARP's public policy institute last month issued a survey that may help people looking for simple, credible advice on whether a card makes sense for them and, if so, which one to buy. You can view it at research.aarp.org/health/2004_16_discount.html.

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"I think we convinced ourselves -- and hopefully others who read the report -- that these cards are offering real savings that are not otherwise available," said Keith Lind, a senior policy adviser at the institute. (AARP received some flak for urging Congress to support the discount program.)

"If you don't have drug insurance now, then it makes sense to get one of these cards," Lind said. As for "picking one that gets you the best price," he added, "obviously the Medicare Web site is the place to go . . . but a lot of people are simply not doing that, so we would encourage people: If you don't want to go to the trouble to check your specific drug mix, think about picking one of the low-price cards that we identify."

And those winners are: Walgreens, myPharmaCare and EnvisionRx Plus. (Their annual enrollment fees are $20, $25 and $30, respectively; other cards are available for less, some of them for free.)

In studying 33 nationally marketed cards, the AARP report found significant differences in prices for 227 drugs. "The highest-price card tends to offer prices that are, on average, about 20 percent more than the price offered by the lowest-price card," the researchers said.

The report also priced common combinations of drugs. A person with hypertension, for example, might need a diuretic, an ACE inhibitor and Norvasc, a brand-name drug that relaxes the blood vessels.

The best price for a month's supply of this trio was the $50.71 being charged by EnvisionRx Plus, 42 percent less than the $71.91 offered by two other plans.

But consumers need to be a little savvy -- and maybe a little flexible -- to maximize the benefit from the cards.

For example, while the myPharmaCare card is honored at many drugstores, it delivers its lowest prices when used at CVS pharmacies, the AARP report found. And guess what? MyPharmaCare is a CVS subsidiary.

"Intuitively I guess it didn't come as a total shock that any particular drugstore chain would offer its best deal if you buy from one of their affiliated drugstores," said Lind. "Some drugs were six or seven dollars more if you bought them at a different store."

Oh, and how did the card offered by AARP do in the survey?

Not so well: With an average of more $70 per prescription, AARP's prices ranked 25th of the 33 plans.

-- Tom Graham

The System welcomes comments from patients, providers, insurers and others about the delivery of health care. While we cannot advocate on behalf of individuals, we are looking for examples of problems and solutions that may direct our reporting. Contact us by U.S. Mail at the address that appears below or by e-mail at thesystem@washpost.com. Do not send original documents.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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