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For seniors, Medicare's new card isn't a cinch

The rollout of discount cards for prescription drugs creates confusion.

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The rollout of the biggest expansion of the Medicare program since its inception was greeted this week with the kind of political fanfare and controversy expected of a hot issue in a tightly contested election year. But it also engendered a healthy dose of confusion.

Millions of elderly Americans like Violet Versailles, who became eligible to sign up for the much touted new Medicare-sponsored drug discount cards, found themselves more puzzled than pleased. "I haven't been able to understand it," she says, filling small bags of candy for a Mother's Day party at the Hamilton Senior Center on Manhattan's West Side.

Calls to the toll-free help line 800-Medicare were regularly answered with: "All circuits are currently busy." The www.medicare.gov website raced to keep updated with the lowest prices offered by the approved card companies. And thousands of social workers and others who work with the elderly struggled to decipher which cards would help which of their clients - if any.

For supporters, the rocky start was a product of the inevitable glitches that come with the creation of a massive new program impacting 41 million Americans. But those advocates also see a success in the making, both in the savings that will come to seniors and in the price transparency already created by the competition between drug-card companies. Anyone can go to the Web now and see which companies offer the best discounts on prescription drugs.

Critics, on the other hand, see the whole effort as nothing more than a squandered opportunity. They contend the new benefit has created maximum confusion for minimal savings because the program is stacked in favor of the drug-card companies. In fact, they argue, the discounts are nothing compared with the lower prices that can be found on the Internet or by re-importing drugs from Canada - a movement that has only gained steam as dissatisfaction with the new program has grown.

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