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As Long as We Remember...

June 9, 2004

Figuring Out Those Medicare Drug Discount Cards

Joe Volz

The woman at Medicare (1-800-633-4227), with a professional smile in her voice, asked a few questions the other day when I called to see if the new Medicare drug card, which went into effect June 1, was the right prescription for me here in Frederick.

She directed me to another woman. On my first attempt on a Wednesday evening at 7, I was informed there would be a 10-minute wait. All of the 400,000 people who phoned in that day must have been ahead of me. After all, 1,400 information specialists were answering phones around the nation and I still couldn't get through. I decided not to hold when I was told that if I called the next day - later in the day-- things would be better. They weren't.

I tried twice that day, and didn't even receive the 10-minute wait warning. I was just told to call back again.

The women who answered the phone and told me to call back were unreal. They were recordings: bright recordings, at that. The woman with the smile actually conducted a robotic conversation, of sorts, with me asking what language I wanted to talk in and what I wanted to know. But she couldn't provide any answers. I had to talk to an unavailable "real" person.

Before I signed up for one of the 71 Medicare prescription cards - I could not switch cards if I later decided I didn't like the first one - I wanted to find out just what the savings would be when I stopped in at my neighborhood pharmacy, the Safeway, on 7th Street.

Despite the initial confusion, Medicare does have a useful pricing schedule on its website, I can learn how much each discount card will charge me for my drugs. After I figure out which card has the best price, I can also find out from the website, by writing in my zip code, which drug stores in my neighborhood honor which discount cards.

So, I can go to my druggist, Lee Barker, and say, "Lee, here's my Precision Drug Discount card which says you will charge me such and such an amount for my drug." And if everything works out like Medicare predicts, Lee will say, "You've got it, Joe."

So, I switched from phone to computer - with much better results.

I wanted to know how much I would pay for the daily 10 mg. Lipitor pill I take for cholesterol.

Barker, a gentle soul who is really there to help, says if I walked in without any insurance plan at all, he would charge me close to $90 for 30 pills (a month's supply). Wow, $3 a pill.

"But I don't know anyone over 60 who pays the full price," he said. "There is always a 10 percent senior discount."

OK, that means I would pay about $80, without any Medicare prescription drug card.

On the Medicare website, I found that the cheapest discount card for Lipitor that I could use in Frederick is Precision Discount of Sunrise, FL. Barker will charge me a bit under $70 with a Precision card. Well, that's $10 less than the senior price, about a 12 percent discount. And using the Precision card, .I would not have to pay any annual fee, which can reach up to $30 with some discount cards.

I could have signed up right then and there by phoning Precision. (You don't sign up for a card with Medicare or at your drug store but with the company issuing the card.)

But I wanted to see if I could do better. My annual Lipitor bill, even with the Precision discount, would still be about $840 a year.

(By the way, anybody who has a company drug benefit paying a $20 monthly co pay can do much better than Medicare.)

But, if you don't have any drug coverage, how about Canada instead of Medicare?

Although Mark McClellan, Medicare chief, opposed bringing in drugs from Canada when he headed the Food and Drug Administration, things have changed. McClellan now tells me that if the drugs can be imported safely, he is not against the concept. That may be because his boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, figures that Congress is going to pass an import legalization bill, anyhow. Actually, Barker pointed out to me that the Lipitor I have been buying at Safeway, although sold by the U.S. giant, Pfizer, is actually made in Ireland. So much for the argument against importing drugs.

New Hampshire, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin, where Thompson used to be governor, have already put up websites for ordering Canadian medicine. It's not hard to see why the states and Congress like the import idea. By ordering Lipitor from Canada, I will pay less than $50 a month (plus shipping). That's $20 a month less than Precision is offering - or a $240 annual savings. And that's just Lipitor. I haven't begun to check out the other drugs I take yet.

So, I think I will forget about the Medicare "discount" card. There is no deadline for signing up. If things settle down - prices could drop because of all the competition says an optimistic McClellan - I can enroll later.

But even if the card is not the answer for me, it could be for you. Just compare what you are paying now with the prices listed on the Medicare website.

You might also find that some current American drug discounters, like, might offer just as good a deal as any Medicare card. However, I opted for a local pharmacy rather than waiting a week or two for a mail order delivery. Also, I want to be able to go over to the drug store and talk to a real live pharmacist.

Don't tell Barker, but the Wal-Mart, near my Worman's Mill townhouse, also offers some discounts that match Medicare drug cards, or come close. And if you want to try an American mail order firm like, you might be able to beat the best Medicare price.

By the way, there are a lot of myths out there about who is eligible for a card. Some people think that the Medicare prescription card is only available to low-income seniors. Not true.

It's available to most of the 41 million Medicare clients.

However, low-income clients - that's singles earning under $12,569 or couples making less than $16.862 -- are eligible for a $600 annual subsidy.

Now that is a bargain.

E-mail Joe Volz at

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