Medicare recipients seek help

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AUGUSTA – For two weeks this winter, Mike Dow couldn’t get his pain medication.

Without the powerful narcotic he took to deal with cancer, Dow went through withdrawal. He lost 10 pounds from pain and stress. It was weight he couldn’t afford to lose.

But under the new federal drug program, his medication cost him $141 a month. He couldn’t afford that either.

The 54-year-old West Paris resident called the federal Medicare Part D hot line over and over again for help. Every time he reached someone, he scrawled their information on the back of an envelope stuffed with Medicare paperwork.

On Monday he clutched that envelope – completely covered in names, phone numbers and failed promises – and told lawmakers that the federal drug program needs to be fixed. Now.

“I have cancer,” he said at a news conference in Augusta. “I haven’t got time to play this game.”

More than a dozen lawmakers, state officials, pharmacists and Medicare Part D recipients crowded into Kennebec Pharmacy and Home Care on Monday, the last day people could sign up for the drug program without penalty this year.

As of Friday, about 70,000 eligible Mainers had not enrolled in the drug program, according to the Governor’s Office of Health Policy and Finance. Those people will be charged an additional 1 percent on top of their premium for every month they don’t sign up after the May 15 deadline.

With so many Medicare Part D problems – like Dow’s – lawmakers said Monday they wanted the federal government to extend that deadline.

“People need more time to make that decision,” said U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, a Democrat.

Recipients agreed. And they wanted the program fixed for the people already caught in it.

“Each time I told (federal hot line workers) the problem, that I couldn’t get the drug I needed, that I couldn’t afford to buy it myself, that I was scared I was going to be very sick if I didn’t take it,” said Cynthia Szymaniak, an Augusta resident who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2000. “They said they couldn’t help me.”

Medicare Part D started Jan. 1 to provide prescription drug plans to the elderly and disabled. But the program immediately floundered under a tide of computer glitches and enrollment problems. Within days, Maine began picking up the tab for people who couldn’t get what they needed from the federal program.

At one point, the state was spending $100,000 a day on that safety net.

The federal government agreed to reimburse Maine for the money it spent, but only through March 31. With 400 to 500 calls a day to the state’s Medicare hot line, Maine decided to keep paying for drugs indefinitely, even if the federal government wouldn’t pay the money back.

Maine spent more than $8 million on drugs through March 31. It continues to spend between $100,000 and $140,000 a week on people who have signed up for Medicare Part D but aren’t getting what they need from the program.

Szymaniak was one of them. Wrangling with federal officials over coverage, she went without some of her medications for more than two months, she said. When she called the state for help, she got her drugs the same day.

“I don’t know what I would have done without them,” she said. “I just didn’t have the stamina to keep fighting.”

Dow also got some help from the state. But the big breakthrough came from Legal Services for the Elderly. The Augusta-based group helped him deal with federal officials and get his drugs at an affordable price.

Instead of $141 a month, he’s now paying $56 a month. And advocates hope to get that even lower.

Dow calls his contact there “my lifesaver.”

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