Medicare Part D round two: Northlanders offer help as open enrollment starts Wednesday

That crazy cross between taxes and choosing a college is back. It's open enrollment period for Medicare recipients choosing a Part D prescription drug plans.

That crazy cross between taxes and choosing a college is back. It's open enrollment period for Medicare recipients choosing a Part D prescription drug plans.

Like taxes, there's a deadline for the paperwork. Like college applications, there are plenty of choices, but you can only pick one. Nice colorful brochures are clogging mailboxes across the nation.

Medicare recipient Sue Dumas compares the offers to time shares.

"It's just like last year, every one of those drug plans are sending out literature," she said. "Again, you get tons and tons of 'Come here and have a free lunch and listen to our presentation.'"

A book won't answer the people's questions, they want to know the plan's cost and if their drugs are covered, she said.


"It's kind of scary," Dumas said of wading through the information. "It is scary."

Last year when Part D launched, Medicare recipients had plenty of questions, considerations and frustrations.

Those feelings will return with the open enrollment period, but, like last year, plenty of help is available in the Northland.

Open enrollment is a period for Medicare recipients to review their Part D plans and switch if they so choose. Open enrollment starts Wednesday and runs through Dec. 31. If people switch, their new plans go into effect Jan. 1.

For the Internet savvy, independent types, the Medicare Web site, , offers tools to help people choose the plan best suited to their needs both financially and medically. Any Medicare recipient can access these tools online themselves or with the help of a relative, trusted friend or caregiver.

For those who'd like help, the Arrowhead Area Agency on Aging has trained volunteers stationed Mondays at Rainbow Center and Tuesdays at Lincoln Park Center throughout open enrollment. Call 727-8147 or 722-8147 respectively for an appointment.

The volunteers are there to help and enjoy what they do, said Loren Bergstedt, who volunteers for the agency at Volunteer Services of Carlton County.

"I signed up because I'm eager to help people," he said. "I'm hoping I'm busy because that means people are getting questions answered."


Bergstedt and the Area Agency on Aging recommend people review their plans, even if they're happy with them, because the plan could be changing.

People can keep existing plans, but they should still review to make sure all their medications are covered and they aren't priced out of the plan, said Catherine Sampson, director of the Area Agency on Aging.

Premiums and deductibles for all plans are going up this year, she said.

Last year the plans ran from about $2 to $100 for the monthly premium, this year they run from $10 to $110.

Also, some of the plans are changing which drugs they cover, she said.

Northlanders also have more plans to choose from this year. In 2006, 41 plans were offered in Minnesota. In 2007, 53 plans are being offered.

To further complicate matters, the tool to review the Part D plans are online on the Medicare Web site.

The majority of Medicare recipients are older than 65 and aren't comfortable with using a computer, Dumas said.


So Dumas went to Rainbow Center to get help picking her plan last year.

"I absolutely didn't know what to do. Who to talk to," she said of finding a plan. "The volunteers did an excellent job. ... They used the computers, and I don't do that at all."

Dumas brought her prescriptions in to the Rainbow Center and a volunteer entered the drugs' names into the computer and told her what the best option was.

It didn't take long before she knew what plan was best for her, she said.

"I'm going to have to go through that counseling again," Dumas said, noting that her 2006 plan's premium is going up $14 and is dropping some of the medicines she has to take.

Bergstedt said if people want help from a volunteer all they need, besides an appointment, is their Medicare information and a list of prescriptions they're taking, complete with information on strength and how often they take them.

Write the list yourself, ask your pharmacist to give you one, or throw all your pills in a bag and bring them along to the meeting, Bergstedt said.

He encourages people to come in for help because the volunteers are ready and willing to help people, he said.


"I love it. I'm retired ... one of the things I wanted to do with my retirement was pay some back. It's fun to help people," he said. "It's a tremendous help and most people appreciate it."

Dumas said she sure does.

"We thank the volunteers so much because we are not savvy in using the computers," she said.

Help is also available by calling the Senior Linkage Line at (800) 333-2433 Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The number is routed to the Duluth office, so local workers will answer the questions, Sampson said.

People can also call (800) MEDICARE or talk to their pharmacist or insurance agent, who may be able to help. Pharmacists may be willing to help if they have time, and many local insurance agents have a Part D line. Insurance agents are helpful for Medicare recipients because they are a local source to call if the recipient has troubles, she said.

However, Sampson cautions Medicare recipients that insurance agents are selling products and what they have may not be the best fit.

"You want to talk to someone who will have your best interest ... not their best interest in mind," she said.

Some exceptions to the open enrollment period apply to people who are dual eligible because they are on both Medicare and Medicaid or are on Medicare and enrolled in a Medicare Savings Program.


News to Use:

Volunteer Medicare Part D help is available at Rainbow and Lincoln Park centers in Duluth

  • Volunteers will be at the Rainbow Center, 211 N. Third Ave. E., 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays, starting Nov. 20. To set up an appointment, call 727-8147, ext. 0.
  • Volunteers will be at Lincoln Park Center, 2014 W. Third St., 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays starting Nov. 21. To set up an appointment, call 722-4107, ext. 0.
  • Help is available now from the Senior LinkAge Line at (800) 333-2433. The line is staffed 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. If a LinkAge line staffer is not available, leave a message. All calls are returned.

Medicare recipients can also visit to review plans or call 1 (800) MEDICARE for more information.

Part D tips for Medicare recipients

Arrowhead Agency on Aging Benefit Specialist Marjorie Bottila offers advice on some things to consider when switching plans.

  • You may have been prescribed new medications since signing up to your current plan, or your plan's formulary (the medications it covers) may be changing. Review any new plan to make sure all your medications are covered.
  • If you are switching plans or planning on switching pharmacies make sure your preferred pharmacy participates with your plan.
  • Consider deductibles and coverage gaps. A higher monthly premium may turnout cheaper in the long run by covering you throughout the year with no gaps in coverage.
  • If you've had a change in your income you may be available for Extra Help from the Social Security Administration. For more information about other options and programs to help reduce costs, call the Senior LinkAge Line.
  • If you enroll in a new plan you are automatically dropped from your old plan. The old plan runs out Dec. 31 and the new plan starts Jan. 1.
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