Seniors everywhere: Let's play Medicare Drug Card Lotto. It's more fun than bingo. Besides, you won't have time for bingo: Medicare Drug Card Lotto will take hours and hours.
The point of MDC Lotto is simple: Find the card that works best for you. Each card is different -- different price ($30 is the ceiling), different drugs, different discounts on those drugs, at different pharmacies. You must compare your pharmaceutical costs (for all the drugs you take at this point in time) with each card, against the costs you would pay without the cards, if you used another non-Medicare drug discount card, or if you bought generic versions of the drugs -- though some cards cover generics. There are more than 70 cards, so pay attention.
To enter the game, it helps to have a computer. Preferably one with a high-speed DSL line, because you will be on it quite some time. The Medicare Web site (www.medicare.gov) will lead you into the game. Be careful: If you press the wrong keys, you'll learn about National Women's Check-up Day or how to order a new Medicare card (not a MDC Lotto card, a regular Medicare card) -- but nothing about the drug cards. Once into the game site, you get all the specifics &endash; like the built-in federal protections against scams. The site is designed to help you choose a card, though I got lost somewhere between income and zip code -- and once I got back on track, my AOL modem connection crashed. It truly is best to have a DSL line.
The site gives you contact information for all the cards -- downloadable as "pdf" files. Again, a really good computer helps. Mine formatted the pdf files into truncated pages, so I know I missed something, but I don't know what. Then you can cut-and-paste, to log onto lots and lots of card Web sites. At the AETNA site, for instance, you'll learn how great AETNA cards are, and how to enroll. By emailing DrugCard@cms.hhs.gov, you can ask questions, whose answers will be posted somewhere in cyberspace. Indeed, the more you surf the Web, the more you learn -- but by this time my zeal for cyberspace was flagged.
Don't worry, though &endash; Medicare, plus all 70 card-touters -- have toll-free lines (1-800-MEDICARE). The Medicare line is quasi-automated, but if you have your Social Security number, your Medicare number, your zip code and the list of all your medications handy, you should be able to get answers. I unfortunately got put into an indeterminate limbo -- maybe I was cut off, maybe put on hold. It didn't matter -- it was time to eat lunch. The company (AETNA, Caremarket, etc.) toll-free lines can be very helpful, provided a caller semi-enrolls (that is, gives up name, address, Social Security and Medicare numbers).
Soon everybody with a Medicare number will be receiving brochures directly from the 70 card-touters, so even if you don't do computers and haven't the time to call all the firms marketing these cards, you'll get mailboxes stuffed with paper.
The faint-hearted might give up now. Don't. Once you create a grid of your medications, you can compare savings -- the Excel computer spreadsheet software would help for this. Pharmacies set prices for the drugs; the cards offer discounts. Analysts say you could save from 10% to 20% by playing this game.
Then -- presto -- you sign up for a card. If your income is low enough (yet too high for Medicaid), you have nothing to lose: You get a card free. Plus you get $600 toward drug expenses. (You can check your eligibility at www.benefitscheckuprx.org). Of course, if you already have insurance coverage for medications, you can't have both this card and your insurance: You'll have to choose. (The Medicare site suggests you keep your insurance.)
MDC Lotto is not static. The card-marketers can change their rules: add drugs, drop drugs, change discounts. Pharmacies can change their prices. And you may well need a different combination of drugs as the year progresses. The good news is that you can switch cards: Once a year you can drop card A to pick up card B. What a game!
MDC Lotto has been brought to you by the federal government, in cooperation with AARP, Caremark, Express Scripts and a host of other companies, who all hope that you will enjoy playing this game as much as they will profit from it.
Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I.