Pharmacists were bracing for the worst as the new Medicare prescription drug plan started this week. The worst didn’t come, but it’s still a mess of paperwork and waiting on the telephone for answers.

“I thought it would be a meltdown, but it’s only a semi-meltdown,” said pharmacist Mark Frost of Snyder Drug in Mankato.

Brent Blair, pharmacist at the North Mankato Medicine Shoppe, said the biggest problem is getting answers for customers from the insurance company help lines. “The help desks are miserable because everyone is calling in. The best is if customers can drop off their prescriptions and they can stop back tomorrow and we’ll have some answers for them.”

The new program, which provides prescription drug coverage to tens of millions of Americans, officially started Sunday, but with a Monday holiday, many pharmacies and customers were just beginning to face the new system Tuesday.

Frost said none of the Medicare customers he saw had yet received their new drug coverage cards. Those enrolled should, however, have gotten a letter from their insurance carrier that contains information needed to get them started in the drug benefits program.

“The biggest problem is people don’t have their card or letter with them,” Frost said. “There is a Web site we can go to if we have the person’s name, date of birth and Social Security number and get the information we need. But the Web site’s been so loaded, it’s hard to get into it.”

The drug benefit coverage is the biggest change in the history of Medicare and is aimed at saving seniors money on their prescription purchases. Minnesota residents could choose one of about 40 different private insurance company drug plans approved by Medicare.

Pharmacist Mike Lokensgard of Lake Crystal Drug said the array of new plans means a lot of research and paperwork for him. “It’s absolutely no fun. The way it was was bad enough. Now there’s more carriers and plans than ever.”

But, Lokensgard said, his customers have been understanding. “One gentleman came in this morning and wanted a refill and he knew it was going to take a while. The bottle’s sitting here and I can’t refill it because I can’t get through on the phone line to get his information.”

Still, Frost and Blair said that when they were able to get through to phone banks or Web sites, they have been able to verify customers’ coverage.

“The big hurdle is just getting people into our computer and getting them set up so we can make a claim for them,” Frost said.

The pharmacists say any glitches in setting up the system won’t mean that customers will be without needed drugs. They will either give customers a few days worth of prescribed drugs or charge them for a prescription and then get them a refund after a claim is paid.

Robin Thompson, whose agency has for the past months been helping thousands of seniors in the region wade through the new system, said her office received fewer calls than expected as the new program kicked in.

“It’s been pretty quiet,” said Thompson of the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging, part of the Region Nine system and the federally approved agency for providing unbiased assistance to seniors searching for a coverage plan.

She said most calls received were from people who are on Medicare and the low-income Medical Assistance program who did not choose a plan and were automatically enrolled in one. “They were automatically and randomly enrolled in a plan. But then they found out that the plan they were enrolled in didn’t cover the drugs they needs.”

Anyone who has a Medicare drug benefit plan who decides it doesn’t fit them, can change — once — to another one until May 15 with no penalty. And anyone who hasn’t yet enrolled in a Medicare drug plan has until that date to sign up without penalty. After May 15, seniors who were qualified but didn’t sign up will have to pay a higher premium.

Some seniors are finding the plan they signed up for doesn’t cover the exact drugs they thought it would. That’s because insurance companies had up to Jan. 1 to change their “formulary” of covered drugs. From now on, the plans can still change which drugs they cover, or increase the price, but they must give enrollees 60 days of notice.

Thompson and the pharmacists say people whose drug is denied for coverage should contact their insurance company and take advantage of the appeal process. The appeals are often successful, especially if a doctor specifies a patient should be on a specific drug.

With many seniors yet to sign up, and with many people perhaps deciding to switch plans, Thompson expects her agency will be busy fielding questions and helping seniors for months to come.

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