Enrollment for the long-anticipated Medicare prescription-drug plan begin last month. Starting Jan. 1, all seniors who qualify for Medicare – regardless of income level, resources, pre-existing conditions or current prescription expenses – will be eligible for the new benefits.

While that may sound like good news, especially with the escalating prices of prescription drugs, some senior citizens say they are a little confused with the details of the plan.

Lake Highlands AARP president Pat McPherson says she has seen the perplexity firsthand.

“I’ve had so many members question me…some are really confused at what’s going on. There are so many varietals in this plan.”

“We are getting bombarded with paperwork,” she says. “We get a paper every week, and every other paper seems to contradict the previous one.”

U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, along with his staff and experts from Medicare, has been holding a series of meetings across the 5th Congressional District to help answer questions about the plan and better explain how it works.

“Prescription drug costs are skyrocketing, so many seniors are excited to get help. But like any government program, there are a lot of rules and regulations, and many seniors have questions,” Hensarling says.

The main thing people need to know about the program, he says, is that it’s voluntary.

“Everyone on Medicare is eligible. However, in many cases Medicare recipients could be penalized if they wait to enroll beyond the initial enrollment period of Nov. 15 through May 15, 2006.”

According to the Medicare website, medicare.gov, those with “Medicare Part A and/or Part B” can now enroll in the drug plan. Coverage begins Jan. 1 for those that join by Dec. 31.

Participants in the plan will pay a monthly premium estimated at $37 (in 2006), a yearly deductible of up to $250 and part of the cost of their prescriptions, including a co-payment or co-insurance. However, individual insurers administer the benefits, and costs may vary depending on the insurer.

For seniors who already have prescription-drug coverage, their insurance companies should mail them information about any upcoming changes to their plan.

Hensarling warns that keeping those letters is extremely important.

“If they elect not to enroll during the initial enrollment period, and their prescription-drug plan is not considered ‘credible,’ ‘equal’ or ‘better’ coverage than the Medicare, then they will be penalized 1 percent every month for each month they elect not to enroll.”

More information on the new program is available at the Medicare website, medicare.gov, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website, cms.hhs.gov. Medicare also has provided a toll-free number to call for additional information at 1-800-MEDICARE.

Hensarling says the new Medicare prescription-drug plan will make healthcare more affordable for seniors.

“Many seniors have a tough time keeping up with the rising costs of their prescriptions. No one should have to choose between buying food and buying medicine.”

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