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Debut of drug cards greeted with a shrug

The new Medicare benefit leaves seniors puzzled.

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The people at AARP are still surprised. After sending out 26,000 enrollment kits for the new Medicare prescription-drug discount card, only 400 people had signed up as of last Friday. That's right, 400. That's not a typo.

Starting this week, more than 7 million seniors could begin using the much-ballyhooed cards, which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) contends can save them up to 18 percent on brand-name drugs. But with more than 70 options to choose from, an Internet-based system for comparison shopping, and glitches galore, millions of eligible seniors like Mary Telsa remain cardless. "I haven't signed up ... because I don't understand how to get enrolled," says the Hollywood, Fla., senior.

Drug-card watchers say myriad reasons are to blame for the sluggish response to the biggest expansion of Medicare in a generation. Top among them is confusion. Many seniors are just overwhelmed by the program's complexity, let alone the challenge of going online. A close second is knowledge. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey from April found that more than half of seniors didn't know a discount card was available.

Then there are questions about how much the card carriers will actually save. Two new studies find that drug price inflation over the past year may have already eaten up the much-vaunted discounts. And critics are quick to point out that it will still be cheaper to get prescription drugs from Canada and certain Internet pharmacies. "The nonresponse is not surprising," says Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center in New York. "It's a combination of the complexity of the program and the meagerness of the benefit for most people."

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