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Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO)

Of 41 million people on Medicare, about half a million voluntarily signed up for the new Medicare prescription drug card in its first month, the Bush administration said Tuesday.

The cards took effect Tuesday. About 2.87 million seniors and disabled people have the cards, including about 2.3 million who were automatically enrolled through their Medicare health maintenance organizations, officials said.

“We are hoping that a lot of folks that were window shopping during the month of May will now sign up in the month of June,” said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson.

He added that “hundreds of thousands” more are in the process of signing up.

His estimates don’t include low-income seniors in seven states who are automatically being enrolled through state low-income drug assistance programs. Colorado doesn’t have such a program, and the government doesn’t have the other states’ numbers yet.

The prescription drug card program is an interim step toward a Medicare drug benefit for seniors that will start in 2006.

Until the Medicare drug-benefit program is up and running, disabled patients and those who are 65 or older can sign up for cards that entitle them to discounts of at least 10 percent on brand-name medicines at local pharmacies or through the mail.

There are 40 nationally accepted cards, and another 33 accepted in specific regions of the country.

Once enrolled, the card sponsors can change their discount structure or drop coverage, but enrollees cannot change cards until the end of the year.

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR) says this is unfair, because companies could bait-and-switch customers.

Thompson waved aside that criticism, saying that drug card companies want to keep customers, not alienate them.

“For those companies that want to stay in this, you want to be one of the survivors,” he said. “You want to give the best service possible – the most drugs, at the cheapest price possible.”

In the past, the Bush administration has said that 7.3 million of the estimated 41 million Medicare beneficiaries would sign up this year for cards.

In a news conference Tuesday, Thompson declined to reiterate that claim, and refused to define the program’s success through the number of people signed up.

“We think it’s successful right now,” he said. “We’ve got 2.8 million Americans signed up who didn’t have this opportunity yesterday.”

In May, the government fielded 3.8 million inquiries from seniors and sent out several million customized information packs.

Still, seniors were taking their time deciding.

They’re weighing the card against other forms of assistance they have cobbled together over years without a prescription drug benefit.

Those options include state patient assistance programs, drug companies, and mail order, Internet and Canadian pharmacies that offer drugs at half the price.

Applications are coming in more slowly than some card vendors had hoped, given the marketing and media blitz surrounding the program.

“We had expected, maybe the word is prepared, for more of a rush earlier last month when the word was getting out,” said Carol Hively, a spokeswoman for Walgreen Co., which says it has processed “tens of thousands” of applications.

“It was more of a trickle of interest in our stores,” she said.

AARP, a lobby for older Americans, said that while it had received thousands of inquiries, only 3,600 people have applied for its Medicare drug-discount card and just 975 were approved as of Tuesday.

Las Vegas-based Sierra Health and Life Insurance Co. offers the cards in five states, including Colorado, and has signed up 673 people.
Contact the author at: [email protected] or 303-892-5269

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