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Mark your calendar for Part D

MY VIEW • Missing Medicare deadline is a dangerous prognosis

Medicare Part D is a health care benefit Ñ a good thing, right? Not everyone would agree. Some have called this prescription drug benefit a disaster. The debate is strident, and it only will intensify from now until the enrollment deadline on May 15.

Many citizens with Medicare have reached a saturation point. They are tired of hearing about Part D, tired of being bombarded with literature and courted by insurance agents. They would like to stop the noise, and have Part D leave them alone. Federal statistics show that as of March 28, about one-third of Oregonians with Medicare (about 33,000 in Multnomah County) have not enrolled in prescription drug coverage equivalent to Part D.

Some truly unpleasant surprises await those who miss the May 15 deadline. First, there is a penalty for late enrollment Ñ 1 percent of the average premium for each month that a client could have had this coverage. That cumulative penalty lasts a lifetime. In 2007, that translates to a $2 to $3 per month late fee that the person with Medicare will pay every month, from then on. The longer someone waits to enroll, the larger the penalty will be.

The second unpleasant surprise is a seven-month delay in coverage. Those who call on May 16 with thoughts of joining a plan and paying a small penalty will be told they must wait until Nov. 15 to choose a plan, and until Jan. 1 for coverage to be in effect. What happens if that person is diagnosed with an illness in the meantime and must now take many medicines? Too bad.

There are 77 Part D plans to choose from in Oregon. That's confusing. Medicare has a toll-free line (1-800-633-4227) open 24 hours a day. But where can people turn who need more assistance?

Fortunately, there is qualified help available, from experienced volunteers, free of charge. The Senior Health Insurance Benefits Assistance program helps people with Medicare look at their current coverage, examine their options objectively, and find a plan that covers their prescriptions and uses their pharmacies. SHIBA volunteers provide assistance by phone and in person at local senior centers, libraries and special events. SHIBA can be reached toll-free from anywhere in Oregon by calling 1-800-722-4134, or in Multnomah County, 503-988-3646.

Medicare Part D can bring enormous help to people who need prescription coverage. It also has the potential to harm those who ignore or don't understand it. In my view, our parents, our loved ones, all people with Medicare deserve adequate information and support to make an informed choice about their health care. They deserve a clear picture of the risks and consequences of missing the May 15 deadline.

Janet Bowman is Senior Health Insurance Benefits Assistance coordinator for Multnomah County Aging & Disability Services.