The largest corporate takeover of Medicare begins today, as millions of Medicare beneficiaries begin coverage under the newly-privatized Medicare Part D drug plan. For those seniors who learn about the Medicare plans from Wal-Mart, they are likely to come away believing that only one company is offering plans in their area. Under federal law, the drug plans available to seniors are all privately-offered, which has led to the pairing of giant health care companies with giant retailers, aiming at the multi-billion elderly health care market. Humana, one of the nation’s largest health care companies, has “co-branded” its Medicare D drug plan with the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart. Humana is using sports celebrities to sell its plan to seniors, like former Miami Dolpins coach Don Shula. Humana claims it has signed up about 1.2 million Medicare beneficiaries to its drug plans nationwide. UnitedHealthcare says it has signed up more than 2 million seniors with its products co-branded with AARP. Humana is offering the Medicare prescription drug plan in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Humana hopes to gain a competitive advantage by co-branding its drug plan with the giant retailer. Other health plans are doing the same co-branding. Cigna is co-branding its Medicare prescription drug card with Kmart, and Wellcare Health Plans is doing the same with Walgreens. Seniors have until May 15th. to sign up for a new drug plan, after which time they will suffer a late-enrollment penalty. But the process has been very confusing for seniors, since in most areas seniors are confronted with 40 or more “Prescription Drug Plans” or PDPs, plus a number of “Medicare Advantage Plans.” Giant corporations like Cigna and Humana hope their alliance with the giant retailers will entice seniors to buy milk in the store and add a Medicare drug plan during the same trip. But small independent drug stores say these big health care/retail alliances are muscling them out. Some pharmacy owners warn that Medicare recipients may not realize that non-chain pharmacies, as well as chains, can continue to fill their prescriptions once the program takes effect. They note that the new drug cards may mislead consumers about which pharmacies will be able to fill prescriptions with the new Medicare plans. At least one Humana drug-plan card features the logos of only big-name pharmacies like Wal-Mart and CVS on it. Scottsboro, Alabama Family Pharmacy owner Joey Carroll told the Daily Sentinel that the logos on the card are “certainly going to make it confusing,” And Dexter Cordes, owner of the independent Big C Pharmacy in Scottsboro, said, “it’s hard to compete with the number-one retailer in the nation. It’s a real slap in the independent pharmacists’ face. We probably see as many people as most of the chains, I would think. And we certainly go out of our way more to help.” Cordes adds, “If you go to Wal-Mart and ask for help there, you’re going to walk out with a Humana card.” The Wal-Mart pharmacist in Scottsboro confirmed this, when he told the newspaper that if Medicare clients ask for information, they are referred to a Humana representative who recommends only Humana plans. The Wal-Mart website links visitors to a page where they can enroll in one of the Humana plans offered in their area. On the Wal-Mart website home page it says, “Drop by your Wal-Mart Store to visit with a Wal-Mart Pharmacist or a Humana Representative for more information on Medicare Programs and enrollment.” And under the heading of Medicare information, Wal-Mart’s website says, “It’s up to you to find and join a plan that meets your needs. Wal-Mart will accept Medicare drug coverage no matter which plan you choose, and we make it easy to transfer your prescriptions. You can compare prices and enroll for Humana’s Prescription Drug Plans now.” Wal-Mart then instructs consumers to “Type in your home ZIP code to see and compare Humana’s Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug plans offered in your area.” But when you enter your zip code to search for drug plans, all that comes up are the Humana plans for your area — no competing plans. Consumers are being misled to believe that the Wal-Mart website helps them “compare drug plan costs” as the heading says, but all that gets listed is the few Humana plans in a given area. The financial arrangement between Humana and Wal-Mart have not been made public. How much Wal-Mart is paid for each elderly person who signs up in a Humana plan has also not been revealed.
The Medicare health program has been turned into a corporate glamour contest, with large for-profit health care firms advertising their alliances with large retailers, to lure seniors into their plans. The Wal-Mart website is misleading, and does not serve the public welfare by giving seniors access to the full range of plans available to them in their area. Instead, the Wal-Mart brand is simply a marketing tool to attract enrollees into the Humana system. Not only has Congress succeeded in confusing millions of seniors, but it has helped large for-profit chains to make millions of dollars off their confusion, and waste health care dollars on image advertising.