JEFFERSON CITY - Pharmacists converged on the front steps of the capitol and blasted the Medicare prescription drug plan hours after President George Bush touted the plan a few blocks away.
"I don't think you'll find any disagreement that the idea of helping our seniors get the prescriptions they need is a good idea...however the rollout of this program - the largest change to the Medicare program since it was started did not go smoothly - and that's putting it mildly," said Matt Hartwig, president of the Missouri Pharmacy Association.
Hartwig said reimbursements to pharmacists under the new prescription program do not cover as much of the costs pharmacists pay and arrive much slower than they did under the old plan. He also said, "Pharmacists spent hours wading through dozens of plans and correcting administrative snafoos."
Medicare Part D, the president's plan to pay for drugs for retired senior citizens, went into effect on Jan. 1. As the May 15 deadline to sign up for the plan approaches, Bush said more than a thousand events have commenced around the country in an effort to sell it. People who sign up after the deadline will be penalized.
Bush sat on a stage and promoted Medicare Part D while flanked on both sides by a local Kmart pharmacist, the administrator for the Medicare program, a Vice President from Lutheran Senior Services, and three retired senior citizens currently enrolled in the Medicare prescription plan.
"There are people literally choosing between their utilities bills and pharmaceuticals and that's not right in our country," Bush said about low-income seniors. He said Medicare Part D will cover more than 95 percent of their prescription drug costs.
The president spoke to an invite-only crowd of about 600 people while dozens of protesters picketed behind the performing arts center.
"Some people don't want to be confronted with choices, Bush said.
But even as one Medicare participant on the panel described how much she has saved on prescription drug costs, she noted the complexity of the program.
"We didn't understand this" Helen Robinette of Jefferson City said while sitting on stage next to the president. She and her husband relied on an insurance agent for help choosing a plan. Now she said she saves about $200 a month on prescriptions.
"This can be confusing to folks," Bush said. "It is," Robinette responded emphatically.
Bush acknowledged earlier in his opening speech that the 42 plans to choose from can make the sign-up process more difficult.
He urged family members, churches and community centers to help those eligible for Medicare Part D to choose a plan.
Another participant on the panel, Bob Vanderfeltz of Jefferson City, spoke about the problems he had trying to get through on the government's hotline for Medicare information.
The retired farmer said, "I tried to call the 1-800 number in the middle of the day and found that sometimes the number works better in the nighttime than it does in the day." Vanderfeltz's prescription costs were reduced from $140 to $7 a month after he signed up to a plan with help from the Social Security office.
A rural pharmacist from the western side of the state later said in front of the capitol that the plan benefits seniors, but he complained about advertisements on the Medicare Part D cards.
David Strauch said some cards have the logos of major pharmacies such as Walmart, CVS, Eckerd, stamped on them. This leads many senior citizens to think they cannot get their prescriptions filled at independent pharmacies, he said.
"I'm in a small, rural community. The nearest Wal-mart is 25 miles away," said Strauch, a pharmacist in Appleton City.
While Strauch conceded the plan offers some benefits to seniors, he said he has spent hours helping seniors pick the right plan. Still, he criticized the president for applauding Robinette's decision to ask her insurance agent for advice on which plan to choose.
"If you go to a car dealership, and it's a Ford dealership, they're going to sell you a Ford," Strauch said. "We can tell them what type of plan they should get and it won't benefit us."