Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Coal Company Retirees and Medicare Prescription Drug Plan Enrollment

Just before the end of 2005 a panic developed among many Medicare-eligible coal company retirees. They got letters saying that they (and their spouses and dependents) would lose all their retiree healthcare benefits if they did not enroll in a Medicare prescription drug plan by December 31, 2005. These retirees have typically had excellent healthcare coverage, including some of the best prescription drug coverage of any retirement plans available in West Virginia. Some have paid no more than $50 out of pocket per year for drugs, even if they got thousands of dollars worth of prescriptions each year.

What about those retirees who are very sick and whose lives depend on costly medical care? What about those retirees who couldn't read or understand their letter (perhaps because of illiteracy, macular degeneration, mental incapacity, low education, etc.)? What about those retirees who never got the letter? What about the covered spouses and children of these retirees who never saw any such letter?

Even for those retirees and dependants who understood, there are literally 57 different drug plans available, each with different premiums, copayments, deductibles, and formularies. How could they possibly digest all that and make a good choice? The only real way to compare 57 different plans is through Medicare.gov's interactive Plan Finder database. How many of these retirees are computer-savvy enough to go through that process? Even if you can type and navigate the website, try typing "hydrochlorothiazide" or "metronidazole" without errors. And all this under the deadline of the busiest time of the year for many, the holiday season, with plenty of snow and cold to contend with.

Then those retirees who were also members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) got letters saying that, though the union disagreed with the coal companies that they could take away retiree health coverage for failure to enroll in a drug plan, the union was recommending that affected retirees go ahead and comply by enrolling while they advocated their position.

For those who got the letters, understood them, and needed help choosing and enrolling in a plan, there was very limited help available. The process of choosing a plan can be time consuming, even using the interactive web-based Plan Finder. This is especially true for folks who take numerous prescription drugs. The toll-free numbers for Medicare, many of the drug companies, and other helping agencies were virtually impossible to get through on during those last weeks of December. One Morgantown senior said she finally hung up after being on hold with Humana (one of the popular and cheaper plan providers) with 1 hour and 40 minutes, hoping to enroll to keep from losing her benefits. Another had a surgery scheduled for January 5, 2006. Even if she could get her healthcare reinstated after successfully enrolling, if it couldn't be done in a week, she would have to bear the huge costs of a surgery because of the lapse in coverage.

At the last possible minute, in the Gazette-Mail on Saturday, December 31, 2005, Cecil Roberts of the UMWA is quoted as saying that retirees from Peabody, Consol, Arch, and Bluestone will not lose their coverage if they have not enrolled in a drug plan by December 31, 2005.

And yet this morning we have reports of covered retirees going to pick up their monthly prescriptions at the same pharmacies they've gone to for years and being told suddenly that they have been "red-flagged," and no longer have any drug coverage at all. Even some who have successfully enrolled in plans, but have not yet gotten their cards and coverage info.

Some of these prescriptions are a matter of life and death. Imagine the impact that all this confusion and threats of having no more coverage can have on a sick elderly retiree.

We are currently attempting to verify the quotes in the article, and to find out if there is still some deadline for these Medicare-eligible retirees to get enrolled in a plan to preserve all their retiree health coverage. As soon as we have more detail and confirmation, we will post it here.

Happy new year.

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