CHICAGO – In an embarrassing snafu, the new Medicare handbook that is arriving in mailboxes this week includes a significant mistake.

Some 42 million seniors and disabled citizens across the country are set to receive the 2006 Medicare guide – the definitive written explanation of the federal health program’s complicated new prescription drug benefit.

But the handbook gives wrong information about a program called “Extra Help” that will provide financial assistance to low-income Medicare members. In a chart at the back, the guide mistakenly indicates that Extra Help recipients can sign up for any Medicare drug plan and pay no monthly premium for coverage.

In fact, this is true of only 40 percent of the plans listed, those with premiums at or below a regional average rate. In Illinois, for example, the average monthly rate is $31.85.

If Extra Help recipients select more expensive plans – 60 percent of those listed – they’ll be responsible for paying the difference between the higher premium and the regional average. That could run to more than $30 a month, an expense low-income consumers can ill afford, advocates said.

“This error is actually quite crucial,” said Vicki Gottlich, a senior attorney with the Center for Medicare Advocacy in Washington, D.C. “Many people rely on this handbook, and they’re not going to realize the information printed is wrong.”

Medicare’s new drug benefit begins in January. Until now, the federal health program hasn’t paid for most prescription medications. Private companies began marketing drug plans to consumers this month.

The mistake in the Medicare guide first came to light last week, as officials were mailing millions of copies to households across the nation. It occurs at the back of the 100-plus page handbook, where comparison charts listing each region’s drug plans are listed.

“The last column of the charts is headed, “If I quality for Extra Help, will my full premium be covered?”‘ noted a letter to all members of Congress from Linda Fishman, director of legislation for the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. “Due to an error, this column lists yes for every plan.”

Gary Karr, a Medicare spokesman, said a “proofreading error” was responsible for the mistake and noted that it is now corrected on the program’s Web site ( Also, companies offering Medicare drug plans have promised to tell low-income consumers that they could end up paying part of the premium if they select a plan that is more expensive than average.

Medicare operates a toll-free hot line at 800-633-4227.

The Medicare handbook cost $42 million to prepare and distribute and already proved controversial earlier this year when a draft was found to contain inaccurate or misleading statements.

Democrats charge that the current problems are symptomatic of a larger difficulty – the extraordinary complexity of Medicare’s new prescription drug program.

“This mistake is just indicative of the incredible confusion surrounding this program,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. Since many seniors don’t use the Internet, “I think Medicare should send out a letter acknowledging the mistake,” she said.

Nationally, about 14 million of Medicare’s members are expected to qualify for Extra Help. To be eligible, a single person has to earn less than $14,355 a year and a married couple less than $19,245. Applicants’ assets must also be limited.

Extra Help recipients will pay minimal costs per prescription ($2 for generics and $5 for brand-name drugs, typically) and no premiums if they opt for a standard Medicare drug plan. Also, there will be no gaps in coverage, as there are for other consumers.

The process of applying for Extra Help has already proved confusing. Although the drug plans operate under Medicare, people seeking financial assistance have to apply to the Social Security Administration. Millions of Social Security applications were sent out this summer, but many older people tossed them in the trash because they didn’t know what they were for, said Thanh Lu, a Medicare outreach coordinator for the Progress Center for Independent Living in Forest Park, Ill.

So far, 3.1 million consumers have applied for Extra Help nationwide, the Social Security Administration reports.

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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