WASHINGTON – It wasn't easy to sign up, but now that she's enrolled in the new Medicare drug benefit, Ruth Dike says it's made a big difference in her finances.
The cost of her medicine ranges from about $10 to $15 a month, she says, vs. at least $100 a month before she joined.
"It's just a relief that I can buy the medications I need without having to worry how I'm going to pay for them," says Dike, 74, of Casper, Wyo.
Congressional supporters of the program worry that the problems that marked its beginnings have drowned out success stories such as Dike's.
Dike said the enrollment process was horrendous. Her friends had the same problem.
"None of them could do it themselves," she said.
She enrolled with the help of the local senior center and now spends between $2 and $5 for each prescription. She takes medicine for high blood pressure, arthritis, an ulcer and her thyroid, and she uses a potassium supplement. By year's end, she estimates she will have saved about $1,000.
Her story fits the profile that Republican lawmakers and some advocacy groups have stressed in recent weeks.
Once older people enroll in one of the drug plans offered, about three-quarters of those beneficiaries say they are satisfied, according to Medicare Rx Education Network. The organization includes patients groups such as the Alzheimer's Association and trade associations representing insurers and drug makers.
"Seniors who have enrolled are finding the benefit worth the time and effort it takes to check out the plans and sign up," said former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., who is the group's honorary chairman.
Most of the calls that lawmakers get from constituents about the drug benefit still come from people who complain. But Max and Donna Dougherty of Bedford, Iowa, contacted Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to let him know they liked the program.
"I was listening to the Democrats complain about this and calling it a joke. And some of the Republicans were saying it's a money pit," Donna Dougherty said. "I'm hear to tell you this is a godsend for us."
She said that choosing a drug plan was easier for them because the local pharmacy would contract with only one of the insurers offering prescription drug coverage.
Her husband is recovering from lung cancer, had a kidney transplant and has heart disease, so he takes numerous prescriptions. She estimates the benefit will save the couple $300 to $350 a month.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt estimates that the average beneficiary will save about $1,100 because the government is subsidizing their drug purchases. The savings depends on the patient's drug needs and the plan they choose. Some beneficiaries may actually end up paying more for their drugs when including a deductible and monthly premiums.
Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., acknowledged that some older people are saving money. But he said beneficiaries could have saved even more if Republicans had allowed the government to negotiate drug prices on their behalf. Instead, insurers now do that.
Doris Brown of Sikeston, Mo., never had drug coverage before January. She has Parkinson's disease, which requires two expensive medications. The great majority of her income comes from her monthly Social Security check.
"I was spending over $5,000 a year on medicine," she said. "I was not able to do much of anything else."
Brown said she so desperately wanted to participate in the program that she spent about an entire work week seeking out information on her options. Some insurers kept her on the telephone for as long as 45 minutes. When she did select a plan, the insurer sent her the wrong card. Still, her doggedness was worth it, she said, because she is spending about $230 less per month on prescriptions.
"It's saving me money. That's what's important," she said.
Ed Haas, executive director of the White River Area Agency on Aging, said his organization had helped more than 1,100 people in north-central Arkansas enroll in a drug plan. He said the large majority are saving money. Those who did not often had gotten free medicine from their physician.
Under the drug benefit, about 43 million older people and the disabled are eligible for prescription drug coverage through a private plan. About 20 million of them had coverage already provided by their employer or through a different government program.
That leaves about 23 million people whom the government is trying to enroll. So far, about 7.2 million have, according to the latest government estimates, which came out in mid-March.
Many lawmakers want to extend the May 15 enrollment deadline because so many millions of people without coverage have yet to sign up. They note that people have found the drug program hard to figure out.
An AP-Ipsos survey in January showed that about two-thirds of older people surveyed and two-thirds of those who have signed up said they were confused by the program.