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Seniors Find Medicare Drug Plan Options Bewildering

Irene Ilachinski, a social worker for the City of Alexandria, uses Maria Tarzi's medication list to find the best prescription plan. Thirty-five plans popped up.
Irene Ilachinski, a social worker for the City of Alexandria, uses Maria Tarzi's medication list to find the best prescription plan. Thirty-five plans popped up. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 19, 2005

They came equipped with notepads of questions and lists of medications, and with the thick red-white-and-blue handbook "Medicare & You." Nearly 200 strong, they came looking for help in figuring out which among dozens of bewildering plans would buy them the most medicines for the least price.

Several hours later, many left a little less confused -- but not necessarily any closer to a decision.

"It's wearing me out," Betsy Curtin confessed as she and her husband departed the James Lee Community Center near Falls Church. She sounded almost indignant about the complexity of the new Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Coverage, the federal government's effort to offer millions of older Americans a way to better afford their pills.

"I'm a college graduate. I worked about 20 years for the Air Force," Curtin said. And she has a computer and some savvy using it. And still, papers in hand, she grimaced. "It's challenging."

Just days into the launch of Medicare's biggest expansion since its inception 40 years ago -- a program that could run taxpayers $720 billion in its first decade -- seniors and the people trying to advise them are incredulous about the multiplicity of options, deductibles, premiums and exceptions, which make comparisons seem overwhelming, if not impossible.

They say the same thing, whether in information sessions large and small or in one-on-one appointments. "It's been driving me crazy," said Rita Reitman Sobel of Alexandria, her face betraying her doubt and anxiety after Thursday's presentation.

What she and the rest of the audience heard was hardly reassuring. Although Part D will greatly benefit certain people, its savings are not universal. The annual costs of its various plans, which are being marketed by private companies, can vary by thousands of dollars, and a penalty could multiply many beneficiaries' bills by thousands more if they sign up after the deadline.

And the best way to sort out the competing information? Via the Internet -- and searches that most seniors say are beyond their ken.

In Virginia, they are faced with nearly four dozen plans. The number exceeds 50 in Maryland and climbs to 67 in the District. Enrollment started Tuesday and continues, for those 65 and older, until May 15. Actual coverage begins Jan. 1.

The program's arcane intricacies and implementation, preceded by a barrage of advertising, have been so criticized that some lawmakers are pushing for a two-year delay.

"This is a bad piece of legislation, and it never should have been enacted," Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) told the community center crowd, which responded with applause.

The program is too complicated, he said, too expensive and "too much of a giveaway to the pharmaceutical companies."

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