Health care law alters plans

RICHLAND — Sharon Wood is skeptical about the new health care reform law passed this year.

In particular, she is concerned she will end up paying more as a senior receiving Medicare, and that Medicare won't cover as much as it has in the past.

"I don't want to end up owing a lot of money for my health benefits," said the 70-year-old Kennewick resident.

Wood was one of about 250 people who filled the Fellowship Hall at Central United Protestant Church in Richland for a Monday afternoon session to find out more about how Medicare will change next year as a result of the new law.

A morning session attracted about the same number of people.

Janet Artzer, coordinator for Kadlec Regional Medical Center's Healthy Ages program, told the audience what changes are coming for Medicare health and prescription drug coverage.

Healthy Ages gives monthly presentations about Medicare benefits, and will offer help to seniors in choosing health and prescription drug plans during the open enrollment period from Nov. 15 to Dec. 31.

One change coming for Medicare is that patients will have no deductible or co-pay for most preventive screenings starting in 2011.

Medicare also will fully cover the cost of a physical exam when the person enrolls and yearly after that.

Right now, only the first wellness screening that a person gets is covered.

Another big change affecting many seniors is the phase-out of the Medicare Part D coverage gap known as the "doughnut hole," which has left a number of people struggling to pay prescription drug costs.

Part D participants who fall into the hole in 2010 will get a $250 rebate check. And starting in 2011 they will get a 50 percent discount from drug manufacturers on the cost of brand name drugs. By 2020, the gap will be phased out altogether.

Artzer noted the rebate only comes once, not every year.

"This is a one-time only deal," she said. "You don't have to apply for it. It just happens."

About 160,000 Washington seniors fall into the gap each year.

Artzer added the caveat that none of the rules is completely black and white.

"Let me tell you, when I talk to you there is an exception for everything I've said," she said.

She directed seniors to the websites insurance.wa.gov for more information, or medicare.gov to compare plans.

They also can call the Medicare information line at 800-633-4227, or the State Health Insurance Assistance Program at 800-562-6900.

* Michelle Dupler: 509-582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com