Picking a Medicare Drug Plan

THE SAVAGE TRUTH | Enrollment time is here again — follow these steps to choose what works best

November 17, 2008

TERRY SAVAGE savage@suntimes.com

Here we go again. Starting today, seniors have six weeks to sign up for another year of Medicare Part D — the prescription drug benefit — that goes along with Medicare Part A (hospitalization), Part B (outpatient and doctor costs) and Medigap (the supplement that covers other costs including co-payments and deductibles).

It’s a must-do project, even if you’re among the few seniors who don’t currently take prescription drugs. If you don’t sign up when you first become eligible, there will be big penalties to pay once you do need some prescriptions — and for sure you will need them at some point.

The Medicare.gov Web site sorts through all of the alternative plans to find you the best coverage at the least cost in a plan that is available at a pharmacy near you.

The only exceptions are those seniors who are covered by a comparable company or retiree prescription plan, or those who have signed up for an all-in-one Medicare Advantage plan. Some seniors have prescription drug access through the Veterans Administration, though they may want to choose an inexpensive Part D plan for drugs the VA does not cover.

For those who recently turned 65 and now qualify for Medicare, this will be the first time going through the process of choosing the least-expensive plan.

But every senior, even those currently enrolled and happy with their drug plan, should go through the process of reviewing the alternatives for 2009. That’s because each year, the plans change the prices of the drugs they cover and may not even include the same medicines in the year ahead.

So here’s my annual, step-by-step guide through the Medicare.gov Web site, the only place that can sort through all of the alternative plans to find you the best coverage at the least cost in a plan that is available at a pharmacy near you!

Finding your plan at Medicare.gov

Step 1. Get a complete list of all of the medicines and dosages you are now taking. The easiest way is to ask your pharmacist for this list, or simply line up all of your prescription bottles.

Step 2. Go to http://www.Medicare.gov. (If you don’t have a computer, you can call 800-MEDICARE, and they will help you through this process over the telephone.)

Step 3. Click on the line near the top of the first page screen that says: “Medicare Prescription Drug Plans — 2009 Plan Data.”

Step 4. On the next page, click on the box that says “Find and Compare Plans.”

Step 5. On the next page, you have a choice of either a “personalized” search or a “generalized” search. If you already have your red, white, and blue Medicare card, you can use the personalized search, in which you input your Medicare number and other information from your card. (You can use the generalized search to find and compare plans in your ZIP code.)

Step 6. On the next page, you can enter the drugs you are currently taking, and the dosages. Even if you do not take prescription drugs now, you must fill out this page, stating that fact. This list can be saved securely for your future visits to Medicare.gov.

You can either type in the names of your drugs, or search for them alphabetically. The most common dosage will automatically pop up, but you should be sure that is the dosage you are taking. The program will also let you know if there is a less-expensive generic available. When you’ve finished listing your prescriptions, click “continue” to move on to the next page where you can recheck the list of names and dosages. Then click “continue” again.

Step 7. You’ll be asked if you have a specific pharmacy that you’d like to work with — one that’s within walking distance of your home, for example. Then click again.

Step 8. You’ve finally arrived at the most important page — the one that lists all of the plans, ranked with the lowest total cost at the top of the list. You can select up to three plans to compare. You can click to see how you might lower your cost, perhaps by switching to a generic. Or the program might suggest an alternative but less-expensive drug in the same category. That’s something you’d have to discuss with your physician.

This year, there are also “star” ratings, up to five stars, based on a survey done for Medicare about the quality and performance of those plans over the last year.

Step 9. After comparing the plans by cost, click on the name of each plan provider to find full details, including a helpful graph of the average monthly cost, as well as information about participating pharmacies and mail order availability. You can print out the pages for each plan, and keep them handy.

Step 10. Before signing up, call the plan’s toll-free number and reconfirm their prices and coverages for the drugs you take, as well as all co-payments. Then you’re ready to ask them to send you the application so you can sign up!

A plea for help: Government should be required to make these decisions easier for seniors. But since it hasn’t, I’m asking the more computer-literate among you to clip this column, find a senior, and offer to help. It’s easy once you’ve done it. And that’s The Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser. Distributed by Creators Syndicate. Copyright Terry Savage Productions Ltd. Visit http://www.terrysavage.com and suntimes.com.

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