By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer
PRICE HILL - It was the first day that seniors could use their new Medicare drug discount cards but by Tuesday afternoon, on a busy day at Hart Pharmacy, not a single person did.
The scene at Hart was repeated at other area pharmacies Tuesday. The underwhelming response to a federal program that offers seniors more than 40 different discount cards as a stop-gap to full-scale Medicare drug benefits coming in 2006 was no great surprise to pharmacists or seniors.
Mimi Hart, pharmicist and co-owner of Hart Pharmacy, closes the deal with Bob Rushford, 67, as he picks up his prescription.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
"It's a confusing program," pharmacist Tom Hart said. "We've told a lot of people to wait a few weeks so we can weed out the bad cards from the good ones."
Reasons for the slow start include:
Widespread cynicism about a confusing program that offers questionable savings.
Some seniors not getting their cards yet.
Some seniors haven't been able to get through by telephone to Medicare to get help picking a card.
Many seniors say they have other ways to get deals at least as good as the cards'.
Seniors say they can get better drug coverage through their corporate retiree health plans, by joining a Medicare HMO, by paying for drug coverage through AARP or other Medicare supplemental plans, or by getting pills from Canada.
In Ohio, the federal discount cards are hitting the market less than a year after seniors started getting similar drug discounts through the Golden Buckeye Card - without any applications or fees.
On the day after a long Memorial Day weekend, Hart Pharmacy was especially busy filling more than 400 prescriptions, many of which will be delivered to seniors living on Cincinnati's west side.
But even among delivery customers, none tried to use a new discount card. Several walk-up customers said they never even considered applying.
"The coverage I have through my secondary insurance is exactly what I need," said Bob Rushford, 67, of Delhi Township, a retired Procter & Gamble employee who gets drug coverage through his former employer.
Shirley Klatte, 73, of Delhi Township gets her medications covered through a Medicare HMO: "Even if I didn't have that, the government-issued ones aren't going to do me a bit of good."
Last week, Medicare officials confirmed that enrollment has been going slow. Calls Tuesday to pharmacies in Burlington, North College Hill and Roselawn further confirmed the slow start.
"I had two customers come in this morning with the cards. For one, the drug wasn't covered. For the other, I'm still trying to get the payment processed," said Tom Stark, owner of the Stark Pharmacy in North College Hill.
The entire experience has been an exercise in frustration for some.
"They ask about the cards. I explain the best I can, and they walk away confused," Stark said. "It's a fiasco."
At Burlington Pharmacy Health Care, about 100 customers have applied for discount cards through his store, owner Steven Mueller said. But none was used Tuesday.
"As confusing as it has been for everybody, I'm not sure how well it's working out," Mueller said.
Some larger pharmacies have been heavily promoting the discount cards. Numerous television ads have run about the Pharmacy Care Alliance Card, which is being promoted by more than 1,850 Kroger Co. pharmacies. Meanwhile, Walgreens has enrolled "tens of thousands" nationwide in its Walgreens Health Initiatives discount-drug card.
Neither provided a count Tuesday on how many seniors used their cards.
"Whatever amount of usage occurs (Tuesday) is not indicative of how much the cards will be used," Walgreens spokesman Michael Polzin said. "You really have to wait a month."
Kroger spokesman Art Wulfeck said: "It's way too early to tell at this point."
To get details about Medicare prescription drug discount cards, call 800-MEDICARE or check www.medicare.gov
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