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Seniors getting up to speed on new drug card
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U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy spoke recently to a crowd at the Anoka Senior Center about the new prescription drug card. Kennedy urged seniors to sign up for the program, which can save patients money on their prescription drugs. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Starting this week, Medicare recipients can begin enrolling in a drug discount card program. The cards are meant to help seniors pay for medicine until the new Medicare prescription drug benefit takes effect in 2006. Seniors across Minnesota have been attending informational meetings on the new benefit, and have mixed feelings about it.

Anoka, Minn. — About 75 seniors gathered at the Anoka Senior Center last week to attend an informational meeting on the new Medicare benefit and drug discount cards. This was one of several events hosted by Republican Congressman Mark Kennedy. He voted for the Medicare bill last year, and is encouraging seniors to embrace the idea.

"Is the plan perfect? Absolutely not. Is it a very significant step forward? I definitely believe it is," Kennedy said. "As this gets implemented, as seniors get used to it, you're going to find this is a very positive step forward for Medicare."

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Image Mixed feelings about the drug card

Sue Rohan, with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, joined Kennedy at the event. She says Medicare is offering 72 drug discount cards through private insurers and other health care companies. The idea is that those private companies will negotiate with drug companies to provide discounts of up to 25 percent for brand name drugs.

Different cards will cover different menus of drugs. Rohan says enrollees can scan the Medicare Web site and compare each drug card for price and availability. She says the discount cards will help thousands of Minnesotans who have little or no drug coverage.

"There are 677,000 Medicare recipients in Minnesota, and 187,000 of them have no prescription drug coverage. So if you think this isn't for you, that might be the case," Rohan said. "But it may be for one of your friends or neighbors or someone you know."

The Bush administration and other supporters of the Medicare drug benefit are making a big push to encourage Medicare recipients to sign up for the drug discount cards. The card program starts June 1, and will run until the new Medicare prescription drug benefit takes effect in 2006.

Several seniors at the Anoka forum expressed concern about the discount cards, and the Medicare law in general. Don Olson of Anoka says Congress should have allowed the federal government -- rather than private companies -- to negotiate the price of drugs with the pharmaceutical companies. He says drug costs will continue to go up unless the federal government starts negotiating drug costs.

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Image Sue Rohan

"Why can't Medicare negotiate better prices on prescription drugs until the year 2006? They negotiate for the federal prison system, the VA hospitals, Medicaid -- and it goes on and on," Olson said.

Rep. Kennedy and other supporters of the law say it's better to have private companies negotiate with the drug companies because they can do a better job.

Other retirees worry that the Medicare law will prompt their former employers to drop their retiree health coverage. The new law will subsidize employers that offer drug coverage as part of their retiree health benefit.

Don Newell of Anoka has mixed feelings about the Medicare law. "You don't know what your employers are going to do. And what they're trying to do is stem the tide, and apparently put the percentages high enough so it won't have an impact," said Newell.

Drug reimportation was also a big issue at the meeting. The Food and Drug Administration says reimportation is unsafe and the agency can't ensure the safety of drugs in cross-border sales. Prescription drugs are less expensive in most countries because the governments impose price controls on drugs.

Mark Hilliard of Ramsey says he doesn't believe the Medicare law or the drug discount cards will be as cost effective or easy as importing drugs from Canada.

"I've got two pages of notes, and I ran out of room. This is a complicated plan," Hilliard said. "I can go to the state Web site and there's no doughnut hole. I'm sorry -- that's as simple as it is."

The Minnesota Senior Federation is telling its members to consider the drug discount cards, but continue to lobby for drug reimportation. Gov. Pawlenty is scheduled to testify this week before a reimportation task force hearing held by the Food and Drug Administration. He says he'll encourage the FDA to pursue reimportation.

"Don't tell me that we're not smart enough to import drugs from Thunder Bay to Grand Marais. You can drive there in an hour," said Pawlenty.

Pawlenty says he'll also encourage the Health and Human Services secretary and Minnesota's congressional delegation to change the Medicare law, and allow the federal government to negotiate prices with drug companies.

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