Medicare Drug Plan Finder: Still Waiting

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

The rollout of the new Medicare drug benefit has been anything but smooth.

At a news briefing yesterday, Mark B. McClellan, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, provided a how-to demonstration of the much-awaited Medicare Prescription Drug Plan Finder, which he said would be available on http://www.medicare.gov by 3 p.m. It wasn't.

The online interactive tool has been pitched as a high-tech way to help the 43 million Medicare beneficiaries sort through all the drug coverage choices. After seniors key in their name, birth date, the names of drugs they take and other information, the Web site spits out a personalized list of drug plans in their area ranked by annual cost.

Advocates for seniors say they expect the tool to be an indispensable aid in signing people up for this significant new government-sponsored benefit.

Problem is, the Medicare folks have had some trouble getting the tool up and running. The original debut date was Oct. 13, but officials delayed it, citing the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. Next it was promised on Oct. 17, but that day, too, came and went without personalized plan comparisons being available.

Late in the month, McClellan told reporters that the feature definitely would be ready before Nov. 15, the date when seniors can begin signing up for the drug benefit. (Coverage takes effect Jan. 1.)

Yesterday, McClellan announced that the time had come. "Now the cost information is there," he said. "It will show how Medicare's prescription drug coverage can save a beneficiary money. . . . This is an unprecedented program in terms of the level of detail available about prescription drug costs on your medicines at your local pharmacy."

But the tool itself appeared to be in need of fixing yesterday. Visitors to the site could not access it for most of the first two hours. When it finally did come up around 5 p.m., it operated awfully slowly.

Medicare officials declined to discuss the source of the problem on the record.

Of course, there is always the phone. Seniors also can obtain personalized plan comparisons by calling agency operators at 800-633-4227. Beneficiaries can sign up as late as Dec. 31 and still have coverage on Jan. 1. "There's plenty of time to make a decision," McClellan said.

-- Christopher Lee

© 2005 The Washington Post Company