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Published: Monday, 1/9/2006

Headaches plague Medicare overhaul during initial week

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Michael Calabrese, pharmacist and owner of Erie Drugs in North Toledo, said the new Medicare program has been a nightmare. Others affected by the program's changes feel the same way. Michael Calabrese, pharmacist and owner of Erie Drugs in North Toledo, said the new Medicare program has been a nightmare. Others affected by the program's changes feel the same way.
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It's a good thing pharmacist Michael Calabrese has easy access to aspirin.

All last week he was busy trying to remedy the headaches caused by the start of Medicare's new prescription drug program.

On Jan. 1, the nation's 42 million Medicare recipients became eligible to get coverage through Medicare for prescription drugs if they'd signed up for the program.

It wasn't pretty.

There were seniors without the Medicare cards they were promised, seniors with cards with inaccurate information, wrong phone numbers to call for help, crashed computer systems, long waits on the phone with insurers swamped with calls and trying to straighten out the mess. The list goes on.

"It's been an absolute nightmare," said Mr. Calabrese, owner of Erie Drugs in North Toledo.

Brent Kahler, owner of Kahler Pharmacy in South Toledo, initially said he didn't want to comment about the problems he's been encountering. Then frustration got the better of him and he began to vent.

"It's been very, very confusing," he said, the weariness in his voice clearly evident.

"We still have people coming in here who have no idea what program they're in, or if they're in a program. I think there were way too many choices presented. They could have made it so much easier."

Then he paused.

"I better stop before I really get rolling," Mr. Kahler said.

It was much the same situation for pharmacists across Ohio and Michigan.

"My guys have a pretty positive attitude, but I'm hearing desperation in their voices. And it's everyone, not just the independent pharmacies. I'm hearing from large chains, too," said Ernest Boyd, executive director of the Ohio Pharmacists Association.

"For us, it hasn't been real smooth sailing," said Tim Kirk, owner of Crary Drug across the Michigan line in Temperance. "... And as far as seniors, it's been a nightmare for them. They're real upset."

"Customers are getting furious," agreed Mr. Boyd.

How furious?

"My wife [a pharmacist in the Columbus area] had a patient yesterday who ripped up his [drug] card in front of her" because he was so angry that the new program wasn't covering the correct dosage of a drug he needed, Mr. Boyd said.

And if you're not on Medicare, don't feel too relieved. All the time pharmacists are having to spend sorting out the new Medicare drug program glitches means they've got less time to spend with everyone else.

Mark McClellan, administrator for the agency running Medicare, said last week that some problems are to be expected given the surge in last-minute enrollment.

He said the process will smooth out over the next couple of weeks.

Gary Panek, who manages Ohio's Golden Buckeye program, a state senior citizen discount program, said he's actually "surprised that there haven't been more major problems."

After all, Mr. Panek noted, this drug program is the biggest expansion of Medicare since its inception.

But to some critics of the Medicare drug program, the problems encountered last week are just another symptom of a program that is too confusing for many seniors.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said seniors have flooded her office with complaints over the program.

"Believe it or not, we have not received one positive phone call. We've been inundated" with complaints, she said.

Like it or not, however, the program has started. Miss Kaptur's advice is don't be afraid to ask questions in the effort to sort out which - if any - Medicare drug plan you want.

She encourages senior citizens to contact organizations like the Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio (1-800-472-7277), which offers one-on-one help for seniors picking a Medicare drug plan.

In addition, she encourages those seniors who are "dual eligible," meaning they're on Medicaid and Medicare, to contact their Medicaid case worker with any questions.

A lot of the recent problems have been encountered by dual- eligible seniors who were randomly assigned to a Medicare drug plan, according to Donna Koehn, coordinator of Lutheran Interfaith Network of Caring Services in Toledo.

Ms. Koehn said while things have improved slightly, she still worries that some senior citizens who encounter problems at their local pharmacy will be turned away and not receive medicine they need.

Many pharmacists are giving patients a temporary supply of medications while problems are sorted out, but not all, Ms. Koehn said.

"This has been frustrating from Day One," Ms. Koehn said.

"I'm a trained volunteer and also work with the Area Office on Aging, too, and it's just been so difficult," Ms. Koehn said. "I waited on the line with an insurance company for 45 minutes and finally hung up."

She indicated she is not optimistic that problems will be sorted out soon.

"It will be rough for quite awhile," Ms. Koehn said.

"I'm just so worried about our low-income seniors who need medicine this month."



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