It's That Time of Year: Medicare Patients Mull Options

Medicare's Part D annual open enrollment period began this week-the time when the program's 46 million beneficiaries can sign up for a Medicare Advantage plan or a stand-alone Part D drug plan, or change plans if they are already enrolled. With an average of 33 Medicare Advantage plans and 46 stand-alone Part D plans to choose from, many of your patients may be looking for help in navigating the process and finding the best plan for them.

Each year, plans change what they cost and what they cover. The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) reports that for both types of plans, seniors could face substantial increases in their premiums if they remain with the same one for 2010. For Medicare Advantage enrollees who stay in the same plan in 2010, monthly premiums will increase an average of 32%. An analysis of the drug plans by the AARP Public Policy Institute also found that a majority of the most popular plans have increased premiums and cost-sharing for next year. "Even those seniors who are happy with their current drug coverage should watch carefully for changes in their plans in 2010,"notes AARP Senior Vice President Cheryl Matheis.

Among the stand-alone plans, relatively few would help beneficiaries with the costs of their medications should they hit the coverage gap known as the "doughnut hole," the KFF reports, and those plans that do provide some relief usually cover only generics or a small number of brand name drugs. Health reform legislation currently pending in both chambers of Congress includes provisions aimed at easing the potential impact of the coverage gap on Medicare patients.

Community drugstores and retail pharmacies offer both in-store and online resources, such as savings calculators, personalized Medicare Part D reports, and user-friendly information guides to help their patients chart the often complex course of selecting the right Rx drug coverage. Patients seeking more information also can visit the government's Medicare Prescription Drug Plan Finder at www.medicare.gov, where they can search plans based on their location and current medications. Another resource is the AARP Web site (www.aarp.org), which offers a step-by-step guide to comparing drug plans.

The open enrollment period runs until December 31, 2009. Patients should be counseled to review the 2010 cost and coverage of their current plans, compare them with other plans in their area, and choose a plan that best meets their needs and budget.