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Help a senior use Web to pick a drug discount card

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM

Originally published: June 3, 2004

As predicted, the newly available Medicare drug discount cards are complicated, confusing, and save seniors only a little bit of money. But a little bit of money is worth saving if that’s the best deal you can get. So here’s a guide to understanding and selecting a card.

Since the best way to make a good choice is by using the Internet, I ask all my readers to reach out to a senior citizen who doesn’t understand computers. Clip this column and invite a senior -- perhaps a relative or someone who lives in your neighborhood -- to line up his or her pill bottles and receipts so you can help with the online drug card selection process.

Who can enroll? Medicare drug discount cards are available to anyone age 65 or older, who is eligible for or already enrolled in either Medicare Part A or B, as long as they do not have drug coverage under Medicaid. The cards will be available until Dec. 31, 2005, when Medicare Part D -- Drug Coverage -- will replace it.

How much can you save? The drug cards typically offer discounts of 10 to 15 percent on more than 200 drugs commonly used by Medicare beneficiaries. But you can realize more savings on generic drugs. And some drug cards also offer discounts on non-prescription drug items.

That should be simple. But 73 different drug cards are being offered. And here’s the big catch: They don’t all have the same prices on the same drugs! So if you take multiple drugs, the comparison process can be complicated.

It’s also important to know that the prices of the drugs can change weekly while you’re locked into the card you choose now for the rest of the year. In December, you can switch programs, but then you’ll be locked in for the next full year.

How much do they cost? Each card issuer can set its own price for a card, up to a maximum of $30 a year. But low-income seniors get a $600 government subsidy for their prescriptions. These seniors will pay a co-insurance payment at the pharmacy of either 5 or 10 percent, and the remaining bill will be covered through the $600 benefit.

Where do you pick up your drugs? Each drug card must offer sales at a local pharmacy, although many plans also have mail-order options. You may opt for mail-ordering a required three-month supply of drugs you take regularly to save even more, and visiting a participating local pharmacy for other prescriptions.

How to choose the right card? In choosing your Medicare drug card, it helps to have a computer. Although you can call the government’s toll-free number, (800) MEDICARE, to get help in choosing the best card, the waiting time is long, and it’s much more complicated than if you can see your options on a computer screen.

The only place to start is, the Medicare Web site. At the top of the home page, click on “Find Medicare Cards and Compare Prices.”

It will take you to a page explaining how the cards work and who is eligible. Then click on “Quick Search” at the top of the page. That takes you to a page where you’ll be asked to insert your ZIP code so the computer can find local drug card programs. On that same page, you’ll see a list of more than 200 drugs. Click on the ones you regularly use, and create your own list. If you make a mistake, you can always change your list.

When you click “Continue,” you’ll be asked to review your dosages to make sure you have the right dosage and frequency. That’s why you need your pill bottles right in front of you.

Click again on “Continue,” and in a moment you’ll see a page listing all your drugs and the total of your drug prices at card programs with pharmacies in your area and by mail. But you need to go one step further and compare prices of the individual drugs.

So put a check mark next to the two or three lowest price deals, and at the bottom of the page click “Continue.” That will show your individual drug prices with each program’s discount card. Now you’re ready to choose a card. Just click on the name of the plan with the lowest prices, and you’ll get information to contact the plan and sign up for your card.

Do your homework. Says Sean Brandle of benefit consultants Segal Co., “It’s not easy to take advantage of the savings, but it can be done if you are willing to do the work of making comparisons.”

For those of us who live on the Internet, it’s actually pretty easy. And I know a lot of seniors are very savvy netizens. But others could really use your help saving pennies that make a big difference. That’s the Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser, and appears weekly on WMAQ-Channel 5’s 4:30 p.m. newscast. Distributed by Creators Syndicate.

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