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May 11, 2006

Extension helps seniors with Medicare drug benefit

Client gets help with Medicare drug benefit registration
A member of the Stanly County Extension staff, right, helps a client register for her Medicare Part D benefit. Registration will end May 15.(Photo by Daniel Kim)

Cooperative Extension has a history of involvement with North Carolina’s older adults, so it comes as no surprise that Extension agents and volunteers have been heavily involved in helping seniors in their counties register for the new federal Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Enrollment in the program began in November and continued through mid-May. Through a long-standing relationship with the state Department of Insurance’s Senior Health Insurance Information Program (SHIIP), several Extension agents, staff and local volunteers provided assistance and information on the new Medicare Part D plan.

The Medicare Part D enrollment, which ends May 15, is very complex, with more than 30 plans to choose from in North Carolina alone. SHIIP volunteers help enrollees examine their choices in relation to the prescription drugs they purchase regularly.

SHIIP provided counties with training, a laptop computer and $1,000 to counties participating in the program.

The effort in some counties has been overwhelming. Several agents reported spending as much as 95 percent of their time helping seniors enroll in the program.

In Stanly County, Extension Director Lori Ivey reported that her trained staff and volunteers worked one-on-one with nearly 700 seniors between November and mid-December. Candy Murray in Wilson County alone had registered about 175 seniors by mid-March, with two months yet to go.

Murray says that normally SHIIP offers a six-week training for volunteers, who then provide assistance. For the Medicare Part D, few volunteers felt they had the necessary computer skills to assist seniors with the program. So as the county’s SHIIP contact, Murray took on the program herself.

“I started making appointments, and I can honestly says that since Nov. 15, this program has consumed just about 95 percent of my time,” Murray said. “It has been both rewarding and stressful. I have learned something new about the program everyday.”

Each one-on-one enrollment session takes about one to two hours. In Wilson County, FCS agent Murray reports that seniors save an average of $2,000 each year under the prescription drug plan. She estimates that savings for those Extension has enrolled to be about $380,000 with two months enrollment yet to go.

Marilyn Gore, area specialized FCS agent in Gaston County, said the time required to do an enrollment depends on the number of prescriptions that have to be entered. One client she enrolled required 17 medications. Most clients in her county also save an average of $2,000.

In Lincoln County, FCS agent Melinda Houser said that a dedicated group of nine volunteers had been busy since December answering questions and helping seniors enroll in the new drug plan. Houser has been involved with the SHIIP program for many years, and the program helped train enrollment volunteers.

“We’ve reached individuals who never would have walked in the door of Extension. This is one of the most successful things we’ve done,” Houser said.

In addition to the information seminar, Houser got word out through radio programs, newspaper announcements and speaking engagements.

“The volunteers are busy and they are dedicated,” she said. “They’ve saved clients thousands of dollars (in prescription drug costs).”

Chowan County’s Shari Farless enrolled about 200 people by mid-March, in addition to presenting information to groups totaling about 500. She estimates average savings at about $1,200. Most importantly, the program has made a difference.

“This has been one of the most high-impact efforts I have done in a long time, and it is getting me a lot of mileage. I have met some wonderful people during this process and have reached an audience I may not of had before,” Farless said.

Georgia Kight of Currituck County had the help of three volunteers, an Extension program assistant and an intern from Elizabeth City State University for enrolling seniors in Medicare Part D. She estimates the average savings per individual to be about $2,000, though clients have saved as much as $20,000.

“I had one example of a disabled individual on Medicaid, who was auto-assigned a plan,” Kight said. “When I did his individual assessment, he was enrolled in a plan that would have cost him $21,916, and the plan that I enrolled him in only cost about $168 for the year. Now that is a success story!”

In Stanly County, Ivey said volunteers and Extension staff members were busy throughout November and December, sometimes enrolling as many as 35 to 40 people a day.

“Extension is the only source in the county for information,” Ivey said. “We’re the resource in the community. Even some pharmacists have called us for information.”

Stanly County clients have generally saved some money – usually hundreds of dollars, Ivey said. She knew of a man who had saved $9,000 on an expensive medication, though some saved as little as $100 or less.

The system is complicated, Ivey said, and enrollment can only be done by computer or by telephone. She believes the program should have been test-piloted to avoid some of the glitches that have occurred.

Yet, she and the others involved in the effort are glad to be of help.

“This is good for Extension because people don’t traditionally see us involved in Medicare,” Ivey said. “We’ve seen lots of new faces.”

Greene County FCS agent Shenile Rothwell said the experience gave her new appreciation for what seniors are paying for prescription drugs. “It was astronomical -- I honestly do not see how they were paying for their medications,” she said.

“I feel that this was the most rewarding work that Extension could do and see firsthand how putting knowledge to work can improve the lives of citizens,” Rothwell said. “There are still some glitches in the system, but it has saved seniors a lot of money in prescription drug costs.”

-N. Hampton

Posted by Natalie at May 11, 2006 04:00 PM