The Macomb Daily: Medicare drug benefit signup deadline looms

May 13, 2006

Macomb County seniors on Friday rushed to sign up for the Medicare prescription drug program as Monday's deadline loomed.
   At a forum in Sterling Heights, Helen Kare, 92, of Roseville, said she was relieved that, in just 20 minutes, a specialist entered her into an insurance plan that sets her total drug costs at $25 a month. Kare, who relies upon five medications, said the confusing array of program options kept her from enrolling until the last minute. 
   "I didn't know what to do. I was hoping to find out what plan (was best), but I needed some more information," said Kare, who lives at a retirement home. "A lot of seniors in my home were confused and haven't done anything about it." 
   With the clock ticking, Kare was among more than 200 seniors who enrolled at Freedom Hill County Park, attending one of the last of dozens of forums held by the county Department of Senior Citizen Services since the enrollment period began six months ago.
   Officials say about half of Macomb seniors who lack prescription drug coverage still had not signed up for the program as the deadline approached, but those figures may be misleading.
   Colleen Burns of the county senior citizens department said skepticism and confusion have caused seniors to procrastinate. In the meantime, they have lost out on savings on their prescription drug costs that often amount to $100 or more per month. 
   "They walk in confused and they're frustrated because they don't know what to do. They say, 'I don't understand it so I don't want to deal with it,'" said Burns, who has signed up more than 500 seniors, relying on a computer program that narrows the choices. "But they leave feeling comfortable and confident with their decision. And they're relieved." 
   My Medicare Matters, a nonprofit group that has helped Michigan seniors wade through the 70 drug plans available, has experienced similar reactions. The organization, an offshoot of the National Council on Aging in Washington, has assisted seniors in forums across the nation since December.
   Danielle McDaniel of My Medicare Matters said the vast majority of seniors are pleased with the savings offered in the plan that's pinpointed as their best choice. 
   "I would say they're shocked more than anything," McDaniel said.
   Seniors who miss Monday's deadline will pay a 1 percent penalty on their monthly premium for each month they are late. Because the next sign-up period does not take place until Nov. 15-Dec. 30, those who miss the cutoff will automatically pay a 7 percent surcharge.
   The Area Agency on Aging has estimated that 55 percent of Macomb seniors had not signed up for the program, as of May 7. But an analysis of those numbers by U.S. Rep. Sander Levin's office provides a more complete picture.
   Levin's staff found that only about 20 percent of Macomb's Medicare beneficiaries signed up for the program, in part because many county seniors, far more than the national average, already receive quality drug coverage under the retiree health plan provided by their former employer. In many cases, those are health plans negotiated by the United Auto Workers with automakers and auto suppliers.
   Of the 123,872 Medicare beneficiaries in Macomb County: 11,903 were automatically transferred from Medicaid to Medicare; 47,008 retained their existing private employer retiree coverage; 4,543 retained their existing federal employee or military retiree coverage: 4,296 stayed in their Medicare HMOs, which provide drug coverage; and 25,197 signed themselves up for a Medicare Part D drug plan.
   Levin is among numerous congressional Democrats who have unsuccessfully pushed for an extension of the Medicare enrollment period, which began Nov. 15.
   As the deadline approaches at midnight Monday, seniors are warned that the Medicare Web site ( and telephone hotline (800-633-4227) could be overwhelmed with 11th hour enrollees.
   The county Department of Senior Citizen Services will assist seniors with enrollment at Universal Mall, located at 12 Mile and Dequindre roads, in Warren today from noon to 5 p.m. The department will also offer help to seniors at their Mount Clemens office on Monday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call (586) 469-6313 for information.