Area seniors get Medicare sign-up break

Published 5:00 am Friday, May 12, 2006

The federal government is extending the Medicare Part Denrollment deadline for senior citizens living in areas affected byHurricane Katrina.

The deadline, previously set for May 15, has been extended untilDec. 31. The extension covers 49 counties, including Lincoln andother parts of Southwest Mississippi.

“This measure is part of the hurricane response from the federallevel,” said Brian Perry, communications director with ThirdDistrict U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering’s office. “It’s just in casepeople are rebuilding their houses and their communities. It is oneless thing on their plate to deal with.”

Late enrollment penalties will be waived for anyone living inthe areas affected by the hurricane. All other areas of the countrywill be held to the May 15 deadline, with late applicants incurringa 1 percent per month penalty on their premiums.

Individuals who moved into the affected area after Katrina arestill eligible for the extended deadline without penalty.

The extension will likely lead to more participation amongLincoln County seniors.

“The good news is a lot of Mississippians have already respondedand signed up,” Perry said.

As of mid-April, 71 percent of eligible seniors in the ThirdDistrict have signed up for the program, with a total districtenrollment of 85,000 people. Officials are pleased with the largeresponse.

“No one is expecting 100 percent enrollment,” Perry said.

However, the deadline extension does not address what some seeas the biggest problem with Medicare Part D.

“There have been a lot of complaints that the sign-up process iscomplicated and that there are too many choices,” Perry said. “Butonce they’re signed up, they are pleased.”

Local pharmacists agree that signing up to Medicare Part D israther intimidating.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” said Rite Aid Pharmacist JenniferDupre. “It’s hard to choose just because there are so manyplans.”

With over 40 prescription drug plans available, prices and drugavailability vary from plan to plan. Dupre and other pharmacists dotheir best to provide guidance and some pharmacies provide computersoftware to help their customers.

“I just tell people it’s really better to just pick one. Pickingany of them is better than doing nothing,” Dupre said.

But lawmakers say the benefits of Medicare Part D outweigh thehassles and complications.

“Before this benefit, Medicare offered a whole host of medicalprocedures. What it did not offer was medicine,” Perry said. “Itsaves them a lot of money and shifts the medical payment burdenfrom hospital treatment and surgery to prevention throughprescription drug care.”

Locals appreciate the deadline extension but believe those whohave not signed up have not done so for other reasons.

“A lot of them just put it off,” Dupre said. “People have hadthe opportunity since Nov. 15. I think people who are going to putit off are going to put it off.”

Whether it is procrastination, intimidation or evacuation thathas kept individuals from enrolling, seniors have six more monthsto gather information and make an informed decision.

“Anyone wanting to know what plan is best for them can visitwww.medicare.gov,” said Dr. Leighann Ross, health fellow withSenator Thad Cochran’s office. “I have referred a lot of people tothere and I have found it to be helpful.”

Additional questions regarding Medicare Part D can be directedto 1-800-Medicare or to Pickering’s office in Brookhaven at (601)823-3400.