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Seniors must study drug plan

Prescription benefit is complicated; but help, information are available

Seniors would do well to inform themselves about the upcoming rollout of a Medicare prescription drug program. It is a program that potentially affects every senior ' and soon-to-be senior ' in the valley, state and nation.

The prescription drug program, referred to in lovely federal bureaucratese as Medicare Part D, offers the opportunity for seniors to sign up for supplemental prescription coverage. This may be a low-cost opportunity for some seniors to save thousands in drug costs annually, while it may be an option that other seniors decide to forego.

The important word in the above sentence is decide, for those who fail to decide may miss an opportunity or find themselves facing higher costs to enter the same program at a later date.

In simple terms, the program provides a number of options for seniors and others eligible for Medicare to get low-cost insurance for prescriptions. But, as with any large federal program, explaining the program is anything but simple. There are many insurance options ' 45 as of last week ' each with different costs, benefits and deductibles. There are five categories of people with varying requirements for enrollment. There are rules for when you sign up and how you sign up. There are separate rules for low-income or disabled people on Medicare.

In other words, it will be confusing for those who don't pay attention, and even for some of those who do pay attention.

But there is help available. Locally, that help will be coordinated by a volunteer organization called SHIBA (Senior Health Insurance Benefits Assistance). The group will coordinate the formidable task of getting the word out to 35,000 or more people in Jackson County who are eligible for the program.

— And they could use help in delivering that message. SHIBA is currently recruiting volunteers to help with the process of educating seniors and enrolling them in the prescription drug program. If you're interested in assisting, call 857-7780.

Whether you want to volunteer or not, trust us, you should be interested in what these folks have to say ' and the time to listen closely is rapidly approaching.

The initial enrollment period will run from Nov. 15 to May 15. While missing that enrollment doesn't mean you'll miss out forever on the program, it would mean higher costs. A penalty of — percent per month will be added to the premium costs for seniors who do not take advantage of the program when they are first eligible.

Senior advocates say even if you don't currently use a lot of prescriptions, it may be worthwhile to sign up for one of the less expensive programs immediately. Some cost as little as &

36;7 a month and by enrolling, a senior not only has the added prescription insurance, but avoids the prospect of paying the late-enrollment penalty.

As this program rolls out, seniors will be bombarded with advertising from insurance companies that are part of the program. There also undoubtedly will be scam artists trying to take advantage, so make sure you're dealing with an authorized vendor before signing up for anything. Remember that no one can sign up before Nov. 15, so anyone who tries to sign you up before then is suspect.

More information will be available as the program gets under way, but it's not too early to begin educating yourself. Information is available in a variety of sources on-line, including and . Medicare is also preparing a handbook that will be mailed out this month.

Arm yourself with knowledge. Your health and your pocketbook may depend on it.