The Checkout

Medicare's Deadline Day

If you're on Medicare, you should be stressing about May 15 just as much as you do about tax day, maybe more. That's the deadline for signing up for the new Part D prescription drug coverage. Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran says if you procrastinate and fail to sign up by May 15--and you don't have creditable drug coverage elsewhere--you could be assessed a penalty, 1 percent more PER MONTH.

As Curran explains it: People on Medicare who already have a separate prescription plan (through a retirement insurance plan, union or HMO) with coverage as good or better than what they could get under the Medicare Part D plan are considered to have "creditable coverage." They do not need to sign up for Medicare Part D by May 15. However, those without creditable coverage need to sign up by then or pay the higher premium each month they delay.

Because the next enrollment period doesn't begin until Nov. 15, 2006, anyone who misses the May 15 deadline will have to pay at least 6 percent more for whichever policy they eventually choose. "That is a lifetime penalty, not a one-time penalty," Curran said in a news release. "Even if you are unhappy with the Part D plan, even if you are working to get it changed, don't wait to sign up if you are eligible because the penalty is real and it is fast approaching." And Curran said that although there was some talk that Congress may extend the deadline, it doesn't appear likely at the moment. "So don't delay," he advised.

Given the complexities of Part D, it's easy to understand why people may be procrastinating. At the same time, the New York Times yesterday reported that a last-minute rush to sign up is tying up phone lines, making consumers wait as long as 30 minutes to talk with a customer service represenetative instead of 30 seconds, which is required for 80 percent of the calls under federal standards.

If you're confused, overwhelmed, even intimidated about Part D, there are a number of helpful Web sites, including Medicare's. There's also a call center, 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to get help.

Meanwhile, the Kaiser Family Foundation just released an updated guide, Talking About Medicare, that addresses all coverage aspects, including Plan D.

By  |  April 25, 2006; 6:30 AM ET Consumer Tips
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To some extent, the procrastination is caused by concern about "It's too confusing."----a concern exacerbated by the press and grand-standing politicians. I'm sure some people had difficulty. Some people have difficulty with everything. Yes, the whole structure could have been simpler. But, everyone I know made decisions with no problem, signed up in November, and began using the benefits on January 1. The next statement does NOT apply to you: Many press articles on the topic were factually incorrect. That didn't help.

Posted by: Carol Green | April 25, 2006 4:28 PM

It has nothing to do with confusion. For people in states like California, the new Medicare "benefits" make the patient pay out of pocket co-pays and some medications are not covered at all. The new federal plan has made it ILLEGAL for states to help medicare recipients pay for their medications. My friend that is on disability lives on $700 per month and now he will have to spend $300 per month on his medications that were previously free because California's program would pay for what Medicare did not cover. It's no wonder that people don't want to sign up for the new plan. My friend wishes he had held out longer. I want to know how far the American people are going to let the federal government get away with this kind of thing. It disgusts me that they keep calling it "benefits". How many people are going to die because they could not afford their medications while the pharmecutical companies continue to report record profits and the federal government just encourages it.

Posted by: Catherine | April 25, 2006 8:27 PM

It has a lot to do with confusion. A bad plan to begin with - rushed through the Congress without proper debate and time to consider many of the consequences (you can never anticipate all of the consequences).

It was almost all politics and not truly designed to aid the people who need the assistance the most.

Shame on you AARP! More than anybody else! Ordinary retirees depend on you to help keep the wolves and charlatans at the door. You helped let them in with this.

Posted by: Bewildered | April 26, 2006 1:12 PM

Individuals covered by the Veterans Administration should not be panicked into signing up for this program, because they should have, or can get, a V.A. letter stating they already have the equivalent coverage, which shields them from the penalty. Vets and their covered families should check with the benefits coordinator at the V.A. facility which serves them. I am amazed that I have not seen any news story on the Medicare "D" coverage or any consumer or health columnist make this clarification, and include it with every story or column.

Posted by: Jay | April 26, 2006 1:40 PM

Medicare Plan D is far more confusing than Medicare, the insurance companies or the Bush Administration is willing to admit. I speak as someone who has taught computing and statistics for close to three decades. I often have received inaccurate phone information from Medicare and sometimes the information does not jibe with what the insurance company claims. Then there is the bait-and-switch aspect which absolutely no one has reported on. For example, the identical Humana plan which costs $1.87/month in Minnesota costs much more in other states; the reason undoubtedly is that Humana has had very little presence in Minnesota and needs to entice the Minnesota public. Guess what will happen in 2007.
Note as well that AARP continues to spread biased information in its publications that Plan D saves seniors money because it is allied with an insurance plan which brags about its connection with AARP.

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