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VUHS students to help senior citizens navigate Medicare needs

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VERGENNES UNION HIGH School students Joe Chugg, front left, Erin Conway and Chris Griffin, back left, are among the 15 students who are working with teacher Meg Coffey and pharmacist Larry Renaud to learn how to help senior citizens navigate the Medicare.gov Web site to find the prescription drug plan that best fits their needs.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell



November 22, 2007

By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — Like many of her friends, Vergennes Union High School senior Erin Conway spends more than an hour a day using a computer.

For Conway, a task like logging onto the medicare.gov Web site and comparing 51 different private prescription drug insurance plans is not that difficult, even though it’s a multi-step, multi-screen process with thousands of possible results depending on the drugs entered. 

But ask the senior citizens for whom the Web site was created and you’ll likely find many of them struggling to make sense of the process.

That’s why 15 VUHS students, along with Kinney Drug supervising pharmacist Larry Renaud and two pharmacy technicians, have volunteered to help senior citizens navigate the medicare.gov maze at the VUHS library on Dec. 2. The goal is to help older Americans take advantage of the annual six-week enrollment period in which they are allowed to change their Medicare Part D prescription drug plan in order to save hundreds or, potentially, thousands of dollars.

The last six weeks of each year senior citizens enrolled in Medicare have the opportunity to change their Medicare Part D drug plans. Pharmacists recommend that all seniors who have such a plan evaluate it each year because the number of plans available changes and what is covered in existing plans changes.

In anticipation of that enrollment period, Renaud teamed up with Conway and 14 other VUHS students to make sure their older neighbors in Addison County could use the Web sight that helps weigh the various plans based on individuals’ specific requirements.

After two 60-minute training sessions at VUHS with Renaud, Conway said she fully understood the site.

“It’s actually quite easy,” she said after logging off from training on Nov. 15. “We got going pretty quickly there once we got the hang of it. And the second time through you have it.”

At the same time, Conway said she knows the targeted clients of the 51 Medicare-approved drug insurance plans — the elderly — are not always exactly Internet savvy.

“I have grandparents, and I know how difficult it would be for them to figure this out on their own. I’ve talked to my grandfather about computers, and he doesn’t quite know how to send an e-mail yet,” Conway said. “It’s important for me to take the knowledge that I’m given every day here at the high school and put it out into the community, and this is one of the easiest ways to do that.”

Renaud, who supervises the Kinney pharmacy in Vergennes, said older customers who came to a similar session a year ago at South Burlington High School averaged $700 or $800 a year in savings by finding an insurance plan that more accurately met their prescription needs.

Nobody who came to South Burlington a year ago saved less than $300 by switching plans, he said. 

“Two people (saved) $2,400,” he said. “The probability of their choice being number one was zero. It never was.”

Renaud emphasized any Medicare-eligible senior citizen who shows up at the VUHS library between 1 and 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 2, will receive help that is both free and confidential: No names will be entered, just Medicare ID numbers and prescription drug data.

“They’ll be handling people’s medicines, but they won’t be handling people’s names, so it will be anonymous,” Renaud said.

When the Medicare-D benefit first came out about three years ago, Renaud said he and a co-worker spent about 100 hours studying its ins and outs. He doesn’t disagree with the logic of having multiple plans tailored to seniors’ different drug regimens, or with the decision to put the comparison online.

“In print form, that would be a two feet tall stack of different companies to go through, and you could never sort it out,” he said. “So they designed it to be run on a program on the Internet, each (plan) an exact fit for someone’s meds in dollars and cents.”

The problem became how to unite the target audience with computers. After presenting at many senior centers and churches for a year or two, it struck Renaud that high schools were full of both computers and savvy users.

“They’ve been brought up with computers … They follow the exact route that’s laid out for them, they practice it, and then they’ll do it perfectly. (And) the pharmacy staff will be floating around the middle verifying everything they do,” Renaud said. “It’s beautiful. It’s the exact tool, and these are the exact people to do it. And look at the amount of computers in one room. No other place has that.”

Renaud approached VUHS, asking specifically to work with those in the senior class, and was directed to class adviser Meg Coffey. She spread the word through the school’s morning homeroom meetings. Despite a number of pre-existing scheduling conflicts, 15 students stepped forward to staff the keyboards, and others will offer baked goods or play music for the library guests.

Coffey said seniors were happy to sign on. 

“A lot of kids are interested in working with the senior citizen community,” Coffey said. “That’s been the response I’ve had: ‘That’s perfect. This is great. I’d love to help out. I feel like we’re too detached.’ That’s the kind of commentary I’ve been getting.”  

Joe Chugg, another senior who said he spends at least an hour a day using a computer, explained why he signed on.

“I know that people who need it probably don’t know how to use computers, and I take them for granted,” Chugg said. “I know people struggle with their money and how to spend it correctly, whether to buy drugs to save their life or food to feed their family, and I want to help.”

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