Looking to "escape the healthcare maze"? The nonprofit Medicare Rights Center says it can help, via www.medicareinteractive.org/aarp. Funded with government and foundation grants and supported by AARP, the site is a welcome new source of info for Medicare beneficiaries asking what the program can and can't do for them.
The official www.medicare.gov site is as labrynthine as you'd expect of a government resource that must be both broad and deep in describing a huge program. Any tool that supplements such a site with decent info is a plus, and this one benefits from timely updates, including the program's new features and rates for 2005.
The site doesn't pretend you'll be happy with every answer. An FAQ on whether the new Medicare discount card is a good deal prompts this reply: "It may not. . . . Before you buy a card, make sure it will give you a better discount than other options." Also valuable: Details on assistance that may be available outside Medicare.
Got an aging mom in Minnesota or a dad in Delaware? Sorry, the tool contains state-specific info for only 19 jurisdictions. And you may get linked to pages that are far too dense for the typical person. Also, while admirably organized, the site can't escape the potential for confusion that results from having so much data to offer.
Info specific to Maryland and Virginia is already in the system; entries for more states -- and the District -- will be posted in coming months, says the Medicare Rights Center, whose challenge now is to keep up with changes in medication rules, eligibility standards and unexpected matters like the shortage of flu shots.