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Seniors will save on Medicare drugs; Health law closing 'doughnut hole'

Western New York seniors stand to save $192 million over the next 10 years, thanks to part of the Obama health bill that took effect on New Year's Day and will eventually eliminate the so-called "doughnut hole" that forces many Medicare patients to pay for part of their own prescriptions.

About 21,000 local seniors stand to benefit from the drug changes over that time period, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday.

"This doughnut hole will no longer be a thorn in the side of New York's cash-strapped seniors," Schumer said. "Starting this week, fewer seniors will have to choose between paying for prescription drugs and paying for food, and between being healthy and being warm."

As a cost-saving move when the prescription drug plan for seniors was implemented in 2006, Congress created the so-called doughnut hole -- which currently means that seniors have to pay for their drugs out of pocket once they have spent $2,840 on prescriptions in a year. Coverage resumes only after a senior pays $4,550 out of pocket for drugs.

Starting on Jan. 1, though, the doughnut hole will be narrowed until it is closed completely in 2020. Starting immediately, seniors who get stuck in the doughnut hole will see their drugs discounted by 50 percent. Schumer said that means a senior with high drug costs saves as much as $9,000 over the next decade.

That's a huge change for many seniors who have found it difficult to afford drugs once they reach the doughnut hole. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that about 15 percent of those seniors curtailed their prescription drug purchases.

"It's no Tim Hortons tidbit," Schumer said of the expensive prescription drug provision that is now in the process of being fixed.

Schumer stressed that, as part of the financial calculations included in the health reform law, revenue was found elsewhere to pay for the cost of closing the doughnut hole. In other words, closing it will not impact the federal deficit.

With the new Republican majority in the House promising to pass legislation next week to repeal the Obama health care bill, Democrats are pointing to the doughnut hole fix as a sign that the GOP is out to repeal progress.

"The Republican message is clear," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said this week. "They want to hit seniors with thousands of dollars a year in additional prescription drug costs by reopening the Medicare doughnut hole, let insurance companies go back to denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions, and raise taxes on small businesses."

Republicans maintain, though, that they will try to jettison the entire health bill and then pass separate legislation that addresses individual health issues.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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