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Medicare Web 'Drug Finder' Hits Snags

Just days before enrollment begins for Medicare's new prescription drug benefit, Medicare officials finally got a crucial program up and running on their Web site. The new "Prescription Drug Plan Finder" is supposed to help people pick their drug coverage. Medicare beneficiaries in most parts of the country have more than 40 different plans to choose from.

But a new survey finds that it's going to take a lot more than an elaborate computer program to help seniors sign up. When Medicare officials demonstrated the new Drug Plan Finder for reporters earlier this week, Medicare's Mary Agnes Laureno searched for a benefit plan for a fictitious Iowa widow, Mary Jones, who takes three drugs to treat her diabetes and high blood pressure.

"You can see here we have the pharmacies that are available in this plan's network in this geographic area," Laureno explains with the click of her mouse. But making choices using the program got more complicated, particularly when it became clear that the drug plan the program picked as the best and cheapest for Mary Jones was one that didn't cover her diabetes drug. "You can see here with the Glucophage, it has the two little asterisks saying this drug is not on the plan's formulary," said Laureno. That means Mrs. Jones would have to pay the full cost of that medication from her own pocket.

Drug Plan Finder has other complex features, too. In some cases the Web program has footnotes that show the program does not have all the information a Medicare recipient needs. Deane Beebe of the Medicare Rights Center, a New York-based consumer group, encountered a footnote while she was testing the program. "It explained that there may be rules like prior authorization, quantity limits, or step therapy in order to receive my drug. And it asked me to call the drug plan to find out more about that," Beebe said.

But that didn't turn out to be so easy. After waiting on hold for 10 minutes, "I did finally speak to somebody who said to me that it was a very good idea for me to call and ask these questions, but he was unable to give me an answer," she said. He transferred her to another person who he said could help, but, according to Beebe, after another half hour wait, "nobody ever came through on the line and I had to hang up."

Mark McClellan, who heads the Medicare program, says the Drug Plan Finder is a valuable tool for Medicare beneficiaries to use. He says, "This is an unprecedented program in terms of the level of detail available about prescription drug costs on your medicine at your local pharmacy." He maintains it is an effective "way for people to make a confident decision about coverage."

But it turns out that Medicare beneficiaries are anything but confident about the new Medicare prescription drug program. A survey of people eligible for Medicare was released Thursday by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health. Harvard's Robert Blendon, who analyzed the poll says, "If the choice were made today, a lot of seniors would not be enrolling in a drug benefit."

The survey polled more than 800 seniors and was conducted in late October. It found that only a fifth of Medicare beneficiaries definitely plan to sign up for the new coverage, including fewer than a third of those who don't have any drug coverage now. Forty-five percent of those who said they're not sure if they'll participate said they doubt the optional drug benefit will save them money. Thirty-seven percent said they're just plain overwhelmed by the number of choices involved in signing up for the program.

The survey also cast doubt on how much Medicare's new Web program will help those people. Less than a quarter of the Medicare beneficiaries said they've ever even been on the Internet. And while operators staffing the program's toll-free 1-800-MEDICARE hotline can walk those without computer access through their options, nearly half of those surveyed were also unaware of that service.

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