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Groups help seniors sign up for drug benefit

After about 30 minutes at a computer, LaVon Schaffer accomplished a task that could baffle a rocket scientist: signing up for the government's new prescription drug benefit.

Lavon Schaffer and Kristin Gussiaas

After about 30 minutes at a computer, LaVon Schaffer accomplished a task that could baffle a rocket scientist: signing up for the government's new prescription drug benefit.

For Schaffer, the potentially confusing process was eased with help from a local Medicare Part D enrollment assistance group. The 71-year-old Fargo resident went to a computer room in the Cass County Annex basement Tuesday morning, where a North Dakota State University pharmacy student helped Schaffer figure out her options.

"It was easier than I expected," Schaffer said.

That's a reaction Laura Fischer loves to hear. She's coordinating the effort for the Fargo Senior Commission, one of several area agencies involved in helping North Dakota seniors sign up for the drug benefit program.

"I like to tell them I make it as painless as possible," Fischer said. "Once they get through it, a lot of people have said, 'You know it really wasn't that bad.' "


But some say it's been difficult to get seniors to that point. North Dakota Insurance Commissioner Jim Poolman is disappointed in enrollment in Medicare Part D so far.

North Dakota has about 105,000 eligible seniors. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, about 34,000 North Dakotans signed up so far, Poolman said.

Of those, 10,400 were eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, which means they were automatically enrolled. Others didn't have to sign up for other reasons, he said.

Poolman believes between 8,000 and 9,000 seniors have actually gone out and signed up for a plan.

"We think that typically people are so confused they're just waiting to sign up," Poolman said.

The Insurance Department's Senior Health Insurance Counseling Program has taken more than 3,500 phone calls with questions about Medicare Part D, Poolman said. The program also has trained volunteers in every county who help people sign up.

The state Department of Human Services has also given $100,000 for enrollment assistance across the state. It usually contracts with senior citizen centers, said Lynne Jacobson, program administrator with the department's Aging Services Division. The federal government may give the state division more funds for the same purpose, she said.

"Fargo really has taken the lead, but they have the most seniors," Jacobson said.


After focusing first on people eligible for Medicaid and Medicare, the local group is helping all eligible seniors in the region that includes Cass. NDSU pharmacy students started assisting Tuesday, Fischer said.

Enrollment assistance is also available in several smaller Cass communities, and the group is working on setting up assistance in Sargent, Steele, Traill, Richland and Ransom counties, Fischer said.

Assistance will continue into May, when enrollment for the drug benefit ends.

While the trained volunteers can't tell seniors which drug coverage to choose, they can help them sort through the maze of choices.

"We just help them nail down what their options are," Fischer said.

For assistance

&bull Whom to call: Fargo Senior Commission at (701) 293-1440. Assistance is done by appointment only.

&bull Where to go: The basement of Cass County Annex, 1010 2nd Ave. S., Fargo. Assistance is offered Tuesday through Thursday.


&bull What happens: Volunteers enter basic information onto a Medicare Web site and help determine which of 41 plans in North Dakota

will work for the senior.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Andrea Domaskin at (701) 241-5556

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