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Wednesday, January 11th, 2006 -- 12:06 PM

The mere mention of Medicare?s new prescription drug program causes some people to become clammy. As of last week, 800,000 Wisconsinites became eligible for Medicare Part D, but there were plenty of problems.

Amy Beathardt, a prescription drug-related benefits specialist with the Clark County Office on Aging, still thinks the program will prove beneficial for many in the area, but there have been problems from the beginning.

Initially, Medicare recipients are asked to choose between one of 46 different prescription drug plans ? all with different premiums, deductibles and caveats. Why so many? Congress says they wanted the competition to drive down prices.

"It did drive the price down a little bit, but it made it a lot more confusing," Beathardt says.

Then, Medicare and the private companies offering the plans, told people if they signed up by December 30th, they?d start receiving their benefits on January 1st.

That claim turned out to be to good to be true.

"If someone would actually go into the pharmacy on January 1st, their information wasn't inputted into Medicare and the private insurance company," Beathardt explains.

The pharmacies have been having billing problems. "The client isn't showing up as being registered with a prescription drug plan, when in fact they did, the enrollment just hasn't gone through yet."

In some cases, access to medications can be a ?life or death? situation -- and while the companies have agreed to offer retroactive payments, that doesn?t help people who can?t afford their meds.

"I would rather have the problem taken care of before the person has to pay the full price. A lot of people around here can't afford to pay the full price," Beathardt says.

Area pharmacies have been willing to work with their customers, she says.

While rare, some people have been shocked when they find out they?re paying more ? sometimes substantially more ? for their medication under Part D.

As bad as it seems, Beathardt still is hopeful the new program will benefit people in Clark County and around the country.

"I sure hope so... once we get all the kinks worked out."

Those eligible have to enroll by May 15 or pay a penalty of a 1-percent increase in most premiums each month if they choose to enroll later. Enrollees also may change plans at no penalty until May 15th. If you?d like more information, you can contact the Clark County Office on Aging at 743-5144.

Feel free to contact us with questions and/or comments.