A coalition of 15 Iowa groups is holding sessions to train doctors, nurses and others about the new prescription drug benefit available through Medicare, the government insurance program for the elderly. Iowa Nurses Association president Karol Joenks says the goal is to educate medical professionals and others so they can help seniors choose which of the prescription drug programs is best for them. Joenks says in the next few weeks, Iowans who are eligible for Medicare will get a booklet in the mail entitled “Medicare and You 2006.” It will lay out which prescription drug plans are available. “Say you’re from Ottumwa,” Joenks says. “Your handbook will be specific to your area.” Joenks says you should expect each of the companies offering plans in your area to send you materials in the mail, and she suggests keeping it all together, then sitting down with a family member or someone you trust, like your pastor, to review all the materials and make your choice. “Whoever it might be, you want to look at the big picture,” Joenks says. “If any of you have ever built a house, you never just start by building a house. You have to have your plans laid out.” Joenks cautions seniors to make sure the prescription drug plan they choose covers the medications they take. Margaret Stout, executive director of the Iowa chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, has already staged two training sessions for members of her staff who will help Medicare recipients figure out the prescription drug benefit. Stout says “negative things” will happen if seniors don’t sign up in a “timely manner.” For example, if a senior doesn’t sign up for a prescription drug program by May of next year, they’ll end up paying more for their medications and if they do sign up later, their premiums will be higher. “Many people with serious mental illness, as others with other disabilities, will receive the communications in the mail and definitely need help in understanding those communications,” Stout says. “They will not know exactly how to handle the enrollment.” Sam McCrorey, site supervisor at Polk County’s Central Senior Center, says seniors are being swamped with information about the prescription drug benefit. “As we all know right now, there’s a lot of confusion about the Medicare issues…and there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered,” McCrorey says. November 15th is the start of the six-month sign-up period during which seniors have to choose a provider to get their prescription drug benefit through Medicare. The average Iowan will have to choose from among 18 different plans. Experts say about half-a-million Iowans who are on Medicare need to make that decision by May of 2006. If you need help in making that decision, you can call 1-800-MEDICARE. That’s the federal government’s toll-free help line. Or you can call the state’s Senior Health Insurance Information program toll-free at 1-800-351-4664.
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