Medicare began posting drug prices on its Web site last week, allowing people to compare the cards and decide which offered the best price on the drugs they use.
Sponsors of the drug cards complained Friday that the Medicare Web site lists some prices wrong. But the top Medicare official defended the accuracy of the site's price comparisons.
"We stand by those prices," said Mark McClellan, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The Medicare Web site is posting the best guaranteed price from drug card sponsors, McClellan said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. The Web site is managed by DestinationRx, a small, California-based company that Medicare hired without seeking bids.
But several sponsors said it is showing prices different from what they submitted.
"Some are too high. Some are too low," said Craig Fuller, president of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, a partner in the Pharmacy Care Alliance drug card.
"The site is ultimately going to be very valuable, but there are serious technical problems that need to be addressed," Fuller said.
Medicare is showing prices for prescription drugs that are off by 15 percent to 20 percent, Fuller said.
Officials for three other card sponsors - Medco Health Solutions Inc., United Health Group's AARP card and Walgreens - also reported problems. However, Walgreens spokeswoman Laurie Meyer said technicians determined that the company, not Medicare, was to blame for inaccuracies that led to posted prices for generic drugs that were "noticeably higher" than Walgreens intends to offer.
The card sponsors said they are concerned that people can begin signing up for cards on Monday based on erroneous information that, in most instances, would put their cards at a disadvantage.
McClellan said Medicare beneficiaries could wait several weeks and still enroll in time to have their cards when they become active on June 1. Medicare is continuing to evaluate applications from card sponsors and still could add cards.
About half of the 40 national and 32 regional cards were included in the initial listing of prescription drug prices. Medicare said it will update the site every Monday. The same information can be obtained by calling Medicare at 1-800-633-4227.
A dozen Democratic senators asked Medicare to allow people 30 days to change cards because so much information is not yet available. Once enrolled, Medicare beneficiaries can only change cards at the end of the year.
McClellan said he does not think a grace period is necessary.
The administration is predicting that the cards will offer significant savings, but critics said seniors can get similar prices, without discounts, through online pharmacies and do even better using Canadian pharmacies.
The discount drug cards were created by last year's prescription drug benefit bill, and the cards will operate from now until the drug benefit kicks in at the beginning of 2006. The card is available to Medicare recipients who do not have prescription drug coverage through Medicaid, and it can cost up to $30 a year to sign up.
Critics say seniors can get similar prices, without discounts, through online pharmacies. They also say the cards aren't fair because the companies can change the discount every week, while seniors are locked into the card they chose for a year.
They say seniors can save even more money by buying their drugs from Canadian pharmacies. However, a Congressional Budget Office report last week found that importing foreign drugs would only slightly reduce U.S. prescription drug spending — by about $40 billion over 10 years, or 1 percent of current spending.