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Last Call for New Medicare Drug Plan

After May 15, penalties for signing up for Medicare Part D will swell.

The May 15 deadline is fast approaching for seniors to sign up for the government's new prescription drug benefit plan, Medicare Part D.

Even if Medicare is a long way off for you, chances are you have a parent or grandparent who might be eligible. If you, or someone close to you, are at least 65, Medicare qualified, and don't have comparable retiree drug coverage from a company or union, you must take action now!

You can learn more about Medicare Part D from a

column I wrote when signups began. But the bottom line is seniors should sign up, even if they're healthy and aren't taking prescription drugs.

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That's because if you live long enough, one day you


need some kind of expensive prescription drug. And if you wait until then to sign up for Part D coverage,

you'll pay a big penalty just because you waited.

The May 15 deadline is firm. The next open enrollment period is Nov. 15 through Dec. 31 -- but by then you'll already be in penalty territory. And that will be very expensive.

For every month you delay signing up for Part D, there is a penalty of 1%

per month

of the average national base premium, which is $32.20 a month for 2006. That means if you miss the deadline and wait seven months, until December, you'll pay an additional $2.25 per month -- every month -- just because you didn't sign up now. That adds up.

And if you wait longer, the penalty could be even greater. That's because every year the government will re-calculate that average base premium, and it could be even higher next year. All those penalty months will create huge monthly premiums if you wait years from now to sign up for Part D drug insurance.

There are several ways to go about this project, without getting buried in details, computers and deductibles.

The Easy Way

This might not be the cheapest or most scientific method, but it is the easiest way to get started: Simply walk into your local pharmacy at the least-busy time of the day, and ask your pharmacist for help in signing up for a plan.

If you're currently taking prescription drugs, your pharmacist can help find which plan generally offers the best coverage for those drugs at the least cost.

If you're not taking any prescription drugs, the pharmacist can probably direct you to the plan with the lowest monthly premium.

Remember, you can change plans once a year. And if you're willing to do a little searching between now and the next open enrollment period, you can easily switch to a more appropriate plan. But at least by going into your pharmacist you'll be enrolled in Part D -- and you won't be paying penalty rates in the future.

The Cheap Way

If you're a senior and don't believe you can afford a drug plan, think again. The federal government's "Extra Help" program provides assistance for seniors with low income and few assets. Extra-help assistance may start when income is less than $14,355 for singles and less than $19,245 for couples.

To determine how much federal Extra Help assistance you qualify for, contact the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213 or apply online at the

Social Security Web site.

The Best Way

Go to the

Medicare Web site and use the "plan finder" search engine. This will ensure that you get the lowest cost plan with the best deal on your drugs. You'll need a list of your prescription names and dosages. The "plan finder" lets you compare plans offered in your ZIP code, based on price, pharmacies in the network and drug formulary lists.

Your local area council on aging and other senior citizens resource centers can also help you through the process.

So now you have absolutely no excuses. Take one of the steps outlined above, and do it today. If you have parents, grandparents or neighbors who are seniors on Medicare, tell them how important it is to sign up now for Part D. You'll be glad you did. And that's The Savage Truth.