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Good news this week for older people who find it hard to afford the drugs they need: A public-private partnership led by the National Council on the Aging (NCOA) has launched an Internet service that reveals whether a particular person is likely to qualify for any of more than 240 prescription discount programs operated by drug companies, government agencies and other parties. These programs offer nearly 800 prescription drugs for free or at reduced rates.

At our invitation, Michael Knipmeyer took the new screening tool for a test drive Thursday by clicking on the "BenefitsCheckupRx" button at www.benefitscheckup.org/.

Knipmeyer, senior attorney for the Health Insurance Counseling Project (HICP) at the George Washington University Law School, created the profile of a typical HICP client: a District widow who is short on financial resources but long on health problems. Her doctors had prescribed drugs for glaucoma, osteoporosis, asthma, depression and pain -- a menu that could eat up a large portion of her income.

Based on past experience, Knipmeyer expected that the widow would be advised to apply for the Together Rx card, which offers discounts to Medicare participants who have no prescription drug coverage and who earn less than $28,000 annually ($38,000 for couples). Sure enough, the screening tool suggested that the fictitious widow consider obtaining that card; it also gave her a phone number (800-865-7211) and a Web site (www.together-rx.com) where she could get an application. The profile of a similar person with a different place of residence generated an additional option: a state-run program that offers drugs to Maryland residents; for those who qualify, the only charge is a co-payment of $5.

While the screening device didn't estimate how much his fictitious widow might save, Knipmeyer said it is much better than the less ambitious Rxhope.com, a site run by the pharmaceutical industry.

A predictable drawback of the new service is that the user needs to be somewhat adept at filling out an interactive questionnaire online. Even Knipmeyer was briefly thrown off course in his first run through the survey. "Many of my clients will need assistance" inputting information about their insurance, assets and prescription needs, he said, though for their caregivers and adult children, "it looks like it should be quite helpful."

Scott Parkin, an NCOA vice president, noted another minor flaw: Some people have answered questions in ways that make them appear less qualified for assistance than they are. To avoid this, it may be smart to underreport your coverage initially and worry about actual eligibility only when applying for a specific discount program.

"It's too early to tell" how many people will take advantage of all this customized information, Parkin said. "We won't really have numbers for a while." But he added that in one case -- involving not a fictitious person but a real District resident whose monthly income of $700 was getting hammered by prescription bills of about $340 a month -- the screening device indicated she might be able to obtain all her drugs for as little as $5 a month.

"That's not necessarily typical," Parkin said, but it does suggest that this new tool could be a valuable reason to go online.

-- Tom Graham

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