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Time is ticking for the 3.9 million African Americans who are eligible to enroll in the new Medicare prescription drug plan, as May 15 marks the deadline to participate without penalty.
After 40 years, the government-sponsored insurance program for people age 65 and older and those with disabilities began offering a voluntary drug benefit, known as Medicare Part D. Created in the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, the new coverage, which took effect Jan. 1, allows participants to buy generic and brand-name medications.
As of Jan. 1, more than 21 million seniors and people with disabilities were enrolled, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Recent information presented by The National Caucus and Center on Black Aged and the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 43% of African Americans with Medicare lacked drug coverage for all or part of the year in 2002. That same year, one in three blacks on Medicare relied on a now extinct Medicaid program to fill prescriptions.
According to Marsha Lillie-Blanton, Kaiser Family Foundation’s vice president for health policy, “Not having drug coverage was a major shortcoming of the [Medicare] program.”
As seniors navigate through dozens of complex plans, proponents and skeptics debate the effectiveness of Medicare Part D.
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says, “I am optimistic that it will be a big help to those who are having trouble paying for the drugs they need to stay healthy.”
However, others disagree. A spokesman for Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida says the new plan “specifically prevented Medicare from negotiating with drug companies to get steep discounts for bulk purchases, which would lower prices. As a consequence, minorities and seniors will pay more than they have to” in the form of premiums and deductibles.
The average annual premium for 2006 recipients is expected to be $386, with a maximum yearly deductible of $250. Medicare covers 75% of all drug costs up to $2,250. The recipient is responsible for paying the next $2,850 in expenses, out of pocket, after which Medicare covers 95% of the remaining costs.
Without supplemental insurance to cover the gap, African Americans on Medicare may still be faced with a large financial burden for healthcare. Recipients with limited income and resources may qualify to receive coverage with little to no premiums or deductibles and subsidized co-payments.
It may take several years to fully assess the program’s success. In the meantime, Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony A. Williams says, “We will be watching very closely to insure that African Americans are not put at a disadvantage by the new Medicare law. Everyone in this country deserves equal healthcare.”
Additional reporting by Tennille M. Robinson