Norma Yeates, looking for a way to shave her husband's $385-a-month prescription drug bill, learned she has a lot of homework ahead before signing up for one of the new Medicare discount cards.
As the Bush administration heralded the opening of enrollment for the cards on Monday, it added a cautionary note to Yeates and others: Don't sign up just yet.
Yeates, 70, walked away with a thick stack of brochures describing her choices after she and 200 other elderly patients met at a forum here with House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Medicare chief Mark McClellan. Her next move is to draw up a detailed chart to help figure out which one of 47 discount cards will save the Naperville, Ill., couple the most money.
"I think most seniors will at first say, 'Oh, I can't do this.' But when they sit down, they can do it," Yeates said. "We've been grocery shoppers all our lives, we've bought car insurance. This is just a new wrinkle."
The cards, which cannot be used until June 1, are designed to deliver savings on seniors' monthly drug bills by encouraging competition among pharmacies, insurance companies and drug companies. Some critics have questioned whether savings will be significant.
The forum at the Kendall County Senior Center was sponsored by Rep. Hastert, R-Ill. Hastert, McClellan, Senate Majority Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and other Republican lawmakers and administration officials fanned out across the country Monday to promote the new cards, the first widely available benefit from the Medicare prescription drug law enacted last year.
At an event in Washington, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson called the cards "a giant step forward on the road to savings," especially for low-income older and disabled Americans who qualify for a $600 subsidy.
Thompson predicted that card sponsors and pharmaceutical companies will be watching Medicare's new prescription price comparison Web site and will lower prices to attract Medicare recipients. "They are going to be very, very cognizant of what other people are charging," he said.
Enrollment forms are available from card sponsors, Medicare and some pharmacies.
Acknowledging there will be "a few bumps in the road," Thompson encouraged people to compare prices for a couple of weeks before signing up for one of 40 national and 33 regional cards. Once enrolled, people cannot change cards until the end of the year.
He dismissed a call from Democrats for a 30-day grace period in which card holders could change their minds because of the program's complexity and possible addition of more card sponsors in coming weeks.
"They have already put the wrong information up on the Web site," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. "I told you it was complex, that it would take a long time. They haven't even gotten it right themselves."
Hastert and McClellan answered some basic questions about the program: It is voluntary and the enrollment fee ranges from free to $30. The most appropriate card for a person depends on what drugs the person takes, where the person lives and whether he or she is open to getting drugs through the mail.
"People say that seniors will never be able to understand this," Hastert said. "I tell you what, you're the best shoppers in the world, with the time and ability to take a look. You know what your needs are, you know what's available out there."
The atmosphere of the question-and-answer session turned frosty when Carol Applebaugh, 67, stood up in the audience and said she could find no cost savings on several popular drugs in her research through Medicare's Web site.
"All we asked for was affordable prescription drugs. What we got was a $500 billion boondoggle," she said, referring to last year's Medicare overhaul.
The sign-up period began even as some card sponsors complained about pricing errors first identified last week. Thompson insisted the prices on Medicare's site are correct. But the Medicare site and some card Web sites returned different prices Monday for identical drugs, dosages and pharmacies.
For more information, call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) or visit http://www.medicare.gov