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Published: Friday, 5/12/2006

Medicare's drug program deadline is Monday night

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Attention Medicare-eligible senior citizens: You've got until Monday to sign up for Medicare's new prescription drug program.

That's right, you must sign up by 11:59 p.m. May 15 to avoid paying a penalty.

For most of you, news of this impending deadline won't come as a surprise.

TV has told you, radio has told you, and dozens of letters in your mailbox have told you. The Blade has told you - with more than 40 newspaper articles regarding Medicare in the last seven months.

Still, many senior advocates are worried that despite all of this attention, some senior citizens aren't heeding their advice.

"I am concerned that a lot haven't enrolled yet," said Merle Kearns, director of the Ohio Department of Aging.

Numbers released last week by the agency overseeing Medicare suggest her fear is well-founded. In Ohio, for example, 1,339,532 senior citizens have either signed up voluntarily for a drug plan, been automatically enrolled because they are on Medicaid, or received some other form of financial assistance from Medicare to help pay for their drugs. That leaves about

460,000 Ohioans who haven't done anything yet.

Ms. Kearns is urging seniors to ask some questions and explore whether signing up is a good idea for them.

"It's a real blessing for low-income people especially," she said. "And there are a lot of people out there who are willing to help you [answer questions]."

The Ohio Department of Insurance, Medicare, the Area Office on Aging of Northwest Ohio, and other agencies are all taking calls from those with questions about the drug program.

Some have been pushing the federal government to do away with the deadline or extend it, but earlier this week President Bush said he was opposed to the idea. During a stop in Florida, he was quoted as saying: "Deadlines are important. Deadlines help people understand there's finality, and people need to get after it, you know?"

Well, if you don't know, you better get moving.

If you're a Medicare-eligible senior and miss the deadline, here's what's in store:

You'll pay a 1 percent penalty for each month you've missed the May 15 deadline, and you can't sign up again until November. That means your premium will be 7 percent higher in November if you join then.

Medicare's drug program has been criticized as being too complex. In Ohio alone, there are 43 drug plans to choose from and dozens more Medicare HMOs offering drug coverage. In Michigan, there are 40 drug plans, and many Medicare HMOs as well.



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