Most Americans have a virtual phobia about government paperwork and the new Medicare Part D prescription-drug benefit is widely feared as one more snarled tangle of user-unfriendly gobbledygook partly designed to discourage participation.

And yet there is something to be said for the recently voiced position of one of the plan's Democratic opponents: "My hunch, in most cases," he said, "is you should apply."

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported poll results showing only 32 percent of seniors have a favorable impression of the drug benefit, with only 22 percent planning to enroll. Adverse as this appears, it marks a significant improvement in attitudes toward the program since April, when only 9 percent of seniors said they planned to participate.

There still is a significant degree of confusion about the drug benefit, with only 37 percent of seniors telling pollsters they understand the new benefit "very" or "somewhat" well, up from 29 percent in April.

These sentiments are very much in evidence among seniors in Astoria and surrounding communities, where social workers are doing their best to answer questions and help seniors in applying for this important, if costly, new government program. Much of this confusion could have been avoided, except that the Bush administration and Congress designed the prescription plan to be as much about insuring profits for pharmaceutical and insurance companies as about insuring access to medicine for senior citizens.

Details about costs and benefits depend upon which of several private insurers an individual selects to run his or her own prescription plan. There is little doubt, however, that the program will result in substantial savings for participants. This is especially true for those who are now completely uninsured, who stand to realize average savings of $1,300 a year.

And according to a coalition of health organizations, people earning no more than $14,500 will see their out-of-pocket costs for prescription medications drop 90 percent, from $1,657 to $180 a year.

A little-known provision of the new law penalizes those who do not sign up in the initial enrollment period that starts Nov. 15, raising the average projected monthly premium of $37 a month by 12 percent a year. This means that someone who delays enrolling for three years will pay about $600 in annual premiums instead of $444. This makes it worthwhile to get the facts and get busy making a decision on whether to participate.

The effects of all this on the national budget remain problematic, the administration having notoriously concealed the true estimated costs of the program from Congress. Some public health experts believe it may yet result in overall savings if proper use of medications avoids the need for costly hospitalizations to cope with health crises. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, Medicare Part D is almost certainly a good deal for most individual seniors, who need to overcome their paperwork phobia and apply.

Senior Information & Assistance plans these Medicare Part D Forums:

Sept. 13: 9:30 a.m. at St. Lawrence Catholic Church, Raymond.

Sept. 15: 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. at The Peninsula Church Center, Seaview.

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