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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Business

Medicare help line gets flood of calls

Knight Ridder

WASHINGTON — Callers to 1-800-MEDICARE are getting a familiar and frustrating message when they ask about a Medicare-approved prescription drug discount card: “Due to high call volumes, all of our agents are currently busy. Please try your call at a later time.”

Marge Ellenberger of Onaway, Mich., tried for two days last week to get information on a discount card for her 76-year-old mother, but she never got past the message that asked her to call again later.

“I tried at 6:30 in the morning, I tried at mid-morning, I tried in the afternoon, the evening. I tried after 10 p.m. and I got the same thing,” Ellenberger said. “If I’m frustrated and I’m 57, how frustrated are the older people that have to go through this who are in their 70s and 80s and have no help?”

Medicare officials are pondering the question. Just over two weeks after rolling out the Medicare-approved prescription drug discount card program on May 3, the controversial and confusing new benefit is off to a rocky start.

One thousand Medicare benefit counselors were no match for 1.6 million calls that swamped the phone lines in the first week in May, when Medicare began helping seniors select a card.

The volume caused thousands of callers to be disconnected, said Medicare administrator Mark McClellan. Thousands more waited 20 minutes or longer.

Medicare will soon add 400 benefit counselors to cope with calls about the new program, which is designed to save most seniors about 17 percent on their drug costs in the coming year. And on Monday, McClellan said another 100 benefit counselors will be added. He suggested that seniors call the number late in the evening and on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, when call volumes are lowest.

Medicare advises that seniors — before they pick up the phone — prepare a list of the names, prices and dosages of the prescription drugs they take in order to help benefit counselors. They also should know their total monthly income.

To reduce phone tie-ups, Medicare wants seniors to go to the agency’s Web site at www.medicare.gov.

Millions of older Americans don’t use the Internet routinely, however, and that’s a big reason for busy signals on the 1-800-MEDICARE line (1-800-633-4227).

On Monday, many callers continued to be disconnected or placed on hold for more than 10 minutes.

Don Zeligson, 66, of Cherry Hill, N.J., said he called at 7:40 a.m. on a recent weekday and was told that an operator would assist him in 10 minutes. “I finally hung up at 10 minutes after 8 a.m.,” Zeligson said. “I had waited 30 minutes already.”

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