Medicare offers $250 checks, possibility of scamsThe check is in the mail this week for 80,000 Medicare recipients in the start of a new program expected to pay 4 million Medicare recipients this year $250 each. Now the real battle will be to make sure that money isn't scammed away.

The checks start going out on Thursday to Medicare recipients whose drug costs for the year have exceeded $2,830.

Medicare's Part D prescription drug coverage after a $310 deductible pays 75% of prescriptions costs below $2,830 and 100% of prescription costs above $6,440. In between, in the so-called "doughnut hole," it pays nothing.

That was fixed in the Health Reform legislation that passed Congress in March. Starting next year, recipients get a 50% discount on drugs when their annual drug costs reach $2,830, and starting in 2020, Medicare pays the whole cost.
The $250 payments are Congress' attempt to provide some immediate help this year -- help that arrives before the November election.

Policy groups say that the $250 benefit isn't everything that is needed but will certainly provide aid. "It is a start," said Mark Steinberg, deputy director of health policy for Families USA, a group supporting affordable health care. He said the doughnut hole was created when Congress ran low of money for the Prescription Part D coverage. "No one ever defended it as a good policy."

David Allen, an AARP spokesman, also said the $250 is a help. "We have seniors who are making decisions of paying bills or splitting pills -- decisions nobody should be making," he said. He called the payment "a good first step."

The problem now is that the checks aren't just attracting the attention of Medicare recipients. They are drawing scammers' attention too, some of whom have already seized on the health reform legislation to float bogus products.

Although eligible recipients don't have to do anything to get the checks -- there is no form to file and no calls to make -- there are already reports that scammers are calling seniors offering to "help" get the checks.

In a blog entry last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made note of the reports.

"We've begun hearing reports of criminals using the passage of the new law as an opportunity to launch new scams targeted at older Americans," she wrote. "We're moving quickly to go after these crooks, and the Affordable Care Act gives us new tools that will make it easier to identify, prosecute, and ultimately prevent fraud."

Allen also expressed concern. "With seniors being a population that are frequently targeted by scammers, we want to make certain that people who expect to receive their checks know what to do and what not to do," he said. "Medicare tracks people's medications. You shouldn't have to give anybody information to get a check. If someone is asking for information, it's definitely a scam."

President Obama is expected on Tuesday to announce additional efforts to prevent the scams when he hosts a tele-town meeting in Maryland to talk to seniors around the country about the Affordable Care Act and the $250 payment. Additional town meetings will be held around the country in connection with the Maryland event.

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