WASHINGTON — Every low-income Medicare beneficiary who qualifies should sign up for a Medicare-approved drug discount card, which provides $600 in government aid to buy prescription medicines.
For everyone else, the decision to buy a discount card — and which one — is not so simple.
Beginning Thursday, the Medicare Web site will provide drug price comparisons and tell Medicare recipients where they can use the various cards. The same information will be available from operators at 1-800-MEDICARE.
Enrollment begins May 3, and the cards can be used starting in June.
The Bush administration launched its second multimillion-dollar round of Medicare advertising Monday, having been stung by criticism that its first installment was political and not particularly informative. The Department of Health and Human Services refused to make the ad materials available.
Companies can start marketing the drug cards in May.
For low-income people who are not already receiving Medicaid, the decision to get a card is easy. It won't cost anything and it comes with $600 to spend on prescription drugs this year and another $600 in 2005.
Which card to pick is another matter.
Even seasoned counselors are struggling to come up with easy-to-understand answers for Medicare recipients of all incomes. Several groups that advocate for older people as well as state health insurance assistance programs are offering help.
"We are struggling with how to spend less than an hour of a counselor's time helping someone make a decision," said Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center in New York. "It may well be that there is no reasonable process to make an informed decision given the complexity of the market."
Although Medicare announced in March that 28 companies had been approved to offer discount cards, that number has risen. There are now 36 national cards and an additional 35 that can be used in different parts of the country.
The cards, which will cost up to $30, may offer discounts on different drugs and in differing amounts, although at least one drug in each of 209 categories must be included. Different pharmacies will accept different cards.
"Companies will set the conditions for their cards' use. For example, they may say, 'We'll give you a break on Lipitor, but only if you buy it at Walgreens,' " Mariette Klein, AARP's associate director for Virginia, said at a recent information session attended by 150 people in Manassas, Va.
Medicare officials say they are confident that the price comparison Web site and telephone help will enable older and disabled Americans to sort it all out.
"Seniors should call 1-800-MEDICARE or go to Medicare.com to shop and compare," said Dr. Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. McClellan said people could sign up for a card right away or wait a few weeks since the cards can't be used until June.
At least one Medicare official, however, suggested waiting, noting that the government is still considering approving more cards and that once enrolled, people have to stick with one card until the end of the year.
AARP's Klein also suggested waiting. "I caution you about jumping on the first offering you get," she said.
Medicare recipients who already have prescription drug coverage through former employers or state plans probably will not find the cards worthwhile, government officials and health care analysts say.
The government estimates that more than 7 million people, most of them now without prescription drug insurance, will sign up for cards. More than 4 million people are expected to qualify for the low-income subsidy.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey are trying to make it easy for its retirees by automatically enrolling those who are eligible for the $600 in aid. Tom Snedden, director of Pennsylvania's PACE prescription drug program, said the state also is offering every Pennsylvanian on Medicare a drug card free of charge.
McClellan, speaking on Capitol Hill earlier this month, said people who use the drug card "will no longer have to pay the highest prices in the world."
In other settings, McClellan has said the cards are a step toward making prescription drugs more affordable, along with the wider use of generic drugs and the Medicare prescription drug insurance program that begins in 2006.
The official administration estimate of savings with the drug card also has been more restrained. It forecasts a savings of 10 percent to 25 percent off the retail price of prescriptions.
A survey of card sponsors found that the cards would produce average discounts of 17 percent for brand-name drugs and 35 percent for generic drugs, according to the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, an association of pharmacy benefit plan managers.
Critics have said they expect more modest savings, noting that prescription prices are rising around 15 percent a year. In that context, said Gail Shearer, Consumers Union's health care expert, seniors might still save more by using existing drug discount cards or filling their prescriptions in Canada.
Even after choosing a Medicare-approved card, consumers with existing cards could still find it hard to discern whether they are getting the best deal possible, analysts said.
"Take all your cards to the pharmacy and ask the pharmacist which one is best," Klein recommended.