Meijer, Blue Cross Team Up

December 30, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Meijer Inc., Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and its HMO affiliate, Blue Care Network, are embarking on a statewide blitz to educate Medicare-eligible individuals, seniors and their families on the new Medicare prescription drug benefits that took effect Jan. 1.

The year-long "Medicare and More" program will involve weekly visits to Meijer stores and senior citizen centers by Blues product representatives, as well as various community events to help spread the word.

An interactive Medicare classroom-on-wheels called the "Blues Cruiser" began making rounds at Meijer stores and community centers on Dec. 28. The cruiser is an extra-wide semi-truck equipped with an information center, presentation area and individual workstations.

The Blues Cruiser will attempt to visit most Meijer stores in Michigan during 2006. It will be in Grand Rapids Jan. 3-4 at the Meijer store at Knapps Corner on East Beltline Avenue. On Jan. 18-19 it will make a return visit to the area at the Meijer store at 315 Wilson Ave. in Walker.

Under the new prescription drug coverage, also known as Medicare Part D plans, every individual entitled to Medicare benefits under either Part A or Part B will have access to prescription drug coverage now that Part D plans have replaced the Medicare-approved drug discount cards. Access to coverage is open to all Medicare beneficiaries regardless of income, resources, health status or current prescription expenses.

All Part D plans are run through private insurance companies. Those enrolled will pay a monthly premium designed to cover approximately 25 percent of the cost of the standard drug benefit, while the federal government picks up about 75 percent of the cost. Enrollment opened Nov. 15 and runs through May 15. After the initial enrollment period ends, Medicare recipients can sign up for the benefit between Nov. 15 and Dec. 31 of each year.

As part of the "Medicare and More" program, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan will offer information on its own Medicare Advantage plans, two of which combine medical and surgical coverage with Medicare Part D prescription coverage. Medicare Advantage is available through health maintenance organizations (HMOs), preferred provider organizations and medical savings accounts.

Cathy Schmitt, vice president of Blue Cross of Michigan's federal programs business unit, said that the partnership with Meijer evolved out of a shared need. As the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began to release information on Medicare Plan D prescription benefits, the Blues' call center began receiving an increasing number of inquiries about the benefit; Meijer pharmacists also began fielding more and more questions on the topic.

"As the opportunity for people to actually begin to sign up got closer and closer, our call volumes increased. The week right after Thanksgiving was the highest volume we were running, which was around 3,500 to 4,000 calls a day," she noted.

Meijer and Blue Cross mutually came together, she said, because of their common roots in the state, their common interests, and the unique facilities Meijer is able to provide.

"We thought we could do something that would really be of service to the Medicare beneficiaries in the state of Michigan," Schmitt said. "It was a kind of a unique setup where we felt we could really get face to face and give people the opportunity they were looking for to get their individual questions responded to."

The organizations had an initial meeting to discuss how the partnership could be carried out, and the idea just snowballed from there, she said.

"We're both Michigan-based companies, and we've done a lot of things over the years together," Nat Love, vice president of drugstores for Meijer, said about the partnership. "We have some 80 stores in Michigan and that provides a lot of sites. The Blues Cruiser takes up a good amount of space in a parking lot, so you need a pretty good-sized parking lot, too."

Besides providing many of the site locations, Meijer stores are handing out half a million pamphlets on the new prescription drug benefit. Meijer pharmacists will continue answering general questions about the plans that are available but cannot advise customers on which plan to choose.

"What we hope to do with the Blues Cruiser is take some of that pressure off the stores and give people a little quieter setting in which to ask questions," he said. "We are really in the information age, so we get tons of questions about drug interactions and those kinds of things; this is just another segment of that where patients are going to ask us questions."

Love stressed that the program's focus is not just on seniors, but on caregivers, too.

About eight to 10 representatives of the Blues will staff the cruiser at each stop initially. Schmitt said the number may be adjusted up or down as demand necessitates.

The Blues Cruiser will be on the road through the end of the year, staying one to three days at each location.

"If we find high interest in some particular area, we may double back and visit it again," Schmitt said.

In addition to Grand Rapids and Walker, the cruiser will visit seven Meijer store locations around Michigan in the month of January. Dates and times of the scheduled stops are available on the Web sites for Meijer and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Schmitt said sites were selected based on population, Meijer locations, and the areas from which the call center was receiving the greatest number of calls. 

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