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Feb 9, 2004 – As senior citizens throughout the United States prepare to take advantage of a new prescription drug benefit taking effect in June under Medicare, advocates in the Virgin Islands are talking about how they can make their considerably smaller benefits stretch to cover the poorest of the territory's seniors.
The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 is being touted by the Bush administration as the biggest change in Medicare in almost 40 years. Recently signed by the president, the act is intended to help 14 million low-income Americans cover the cost of their medications, many of them used to treat chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Because the benefits don't take effect permanently for another two years, a transitional program is being put in place in the meantime. But according to Denise Singleton, president of the territory's AARP chapter, even with an accelerated benefits schedule, local seniors still have less to look forward to than their counterparts on the U.S. mainland.
"Right now we're looking at that transitional assistance," Singleton said on Sunday. "Cards are supposed to be made available beginning June 1, and we're looking to see what we can do for Medicare beneficiaries in the territory — bring them on board and get them ready for the 2006 rollout."
The AARP sponsored a grant workshop last Thursday to demonstrate how the territory can prepare a transitional assistance plan so Virgin Islanders can take part in the Medicare subsidies that become available June 1. Representatives of Government House and the Bureau of Economic Research, health care professionals and social service providers were on hand for the presentations.
Singleton said that based on the information shared at that meeting, she is confident the Virgin Islands will submit the required documents to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services by the March 12 deadline. The transitional assistance plan must spell out how the prescription drug benefits will be made available to low-income residents.
Unfortunately, Singleton said, the federal Medicare cap for the territory will make it hard to reach many eligible seniors. "The plan will be submitted in a timely manner," she said. "The issue that has surfaced that makes this a little difficult is that, again, the territories were set aside and treated differently."
While benefits for stateside recipients are being extended by $600 a year, the federal funding expected to flow to the territories will not be enough to provide the same subsidy, she said. She added that a large number of low-income V.I. residents take medication to treat chronic disease that are also some of the leading causes of death in the territory.
Once approval of the V.I. transitional plan is received from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a public information campaign will be launched to get the word out to eligible seniors about the steps involved in participating in the program. This will include where to sign up, what supporting documents must be provided, and how the new prescription discount cards are to be used.

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