Seniors can start signing up today for Medicare's new prescription drug program — but there's no need to rush into anything, according to Medicare officials and aging experts.

"There's no need to panic. You don't need to be the first on your block to sign up," said Peter Herbertson, head of outreach for Salt Lake County Aging Services.

For the past seven months, Herbertson and his crew have been meeting with community agencies and going door-to-door talking to seniors, trying to explain the complicated new system, which for the first time provides Medicare coverage for generic and brand-name drugs.

Enrollment for the program begins today and extends to May 15, 2006. Seniors who sign up by Dec. 31 will have coverage starting the very next day, according to the friendly recorded voice at 1-800-633-4227. After the first of the year, benefits will begin at the first of the month following enrollment. After May 15, seniors can still sign up but there will be a penalty.

Before seniors sign up, though, they'll have to figure out which plan to pick. In Utah, that means a choice between 18 providers and 44 different plans, with premiums ranging from $6.33 to $68.88 a month, varying deductibles and two ways to get coverage (Medicare or Medicare Advantage). And that means going to www.medicare.org and figuring out which plans provide the actual drugs an individual senior needs at the current time. Seniors can change plans every November.

Just last week, the Web site added a "formulary finder" that shows which plans cover which drugs.

"The plans are so specialized, everyone has a different need," said Herbertson, who insists that if you go step-by-step on the Web site, "It's not really that hard."

As he has gone door-to-door at senior high-rises and met one-on-one with people at local senior centers, one of the first questions he asks is, "Do you have a child or grandchild with a computer?" Access to and familiarity with the Internet is "where the rubber hits the road," Herbertson said.

So far, his agency has identified 3,200 people who don't have anyone to help them navigate the Medicare Web site. The next step will be to offer that help.

"It needs to be a trusted person, because you have to provide personal information," he cautioned, adding seniors should not give out information to strangers.

County Aging Services has targeted low-income seniors at first, especially those with big prescription needs, so they can get coverage as of Jan. 1. For people who don't take many medications, "It's better to take time to make a decision" about which plan to sign up for, he said.

The seniors he's encountered so far are "extremely confused" about the details of the drug plan, he said, and as a result some have balked at studying the information.

"Many don't realize there will be savings for them," he said.


E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com