Medicare drug plan © MedicalRF.com/Corbis

The Basics1/7/2008 12:01 AM ET

How to pick a Medicare drug plan

The annual deadline for signing up passed as the new year started -- unless you meet certain conditions for benefits. Here's what you need to know to choose wisely.

By Bankrate.com

2007 wasn't the only thing ticking away as midnight approached on New Year's Eve. So was the open enrollment period for the 2008 Medicare Part D drug benefit.

If you haven't heard about this program, you're not alone.

As a recently published Kaiser Family Foundation report noted, knowledge about the Part D benefit "has not increased appreciably among most participants," and many Americans still lack a clear understanding of how the Part D program works.

What it is

Medicare Part D offers no one-size-fits-all prescription drug plan of its own. Instead, the federal government has opted to subsidize private insurers so that they, in turn, could offer this optional drug coverage to Medicare beneficiaries. These private insurance plans must meet or exceed the drug benefit standard established by the federal government in 2003, and they potentially lower drug costs for most Medicare beneficiaries.

The good news is that everyone on Medicare is eligible to receive Part D prescription drug coverage. The bad news is that in order to obtain and benefit from it, it's up to beneficiaries to take the initiative and select a drug plan on their own and then to review that coverage annually to make sure it remains the best option for their needs. That's because premiums, deductibles, co-pays and the drugs covered in the plans change from year to year.

The annual open enrollment period runs from Nov. 15 to Dec. 31, and it's generally during this brief time frame that people can enroll in a new first-time plan or change an existing plan if they want Part D coverage in place as of Jan. 1.

You can get Medicare drug coverage in one of two ways: You can join a stand-alone Medicare drug plan, or you can join a more comprehensive Medicare Advantage plan, similar to a health maintenance organization or preferred provider organization, and get all of your Medicare health coverage from that single provider.

When else you can sign up

You can also join, switch or drop a Medicare drug plan:

  • When you first become eligible for Medicare (in a time frame of three months before you turn 65 to three months after the month you turn 65).

  • During the three months before to three months after your 25th month of cash disability payments, if you get Medicare due to the disability.

  • Anytime if you qualify for "extra help." This includes people who have Medicare or Medicaid, who belong to a Medicare savings program or who get Supplemental Security Income benefits but not Medicaid.

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In certain situations, you may also be able to join, switch or drop Medicare drug plans at other times -- for example, if you move out of a service area or live in an institution.

How it works

Once enrolled in a qualified plan, you generally have to pay a separate monthly premium as well as a yearly deductible of $275. After the deductible amount is paid, you will then pay 25% of the cost of covered Part D prescription drugs up to a coverage limit of $2,510.

In basic Part D plans, drug-related expenses above $2,510 and below $5,726.25 must be paid fully by the beneficiary. This is the program's controversial "doughnut hole," or coverage gap. Thereafter, though, Part D "catastrophic coverage" kicks in, covering 95% of prescription drug costs for the rest of the year. That means you'll pay the co-insurance amount (5%) for your drugs or a small co-payment ranging from $2.25 to $5.60 for each prescription.

What it costs

Costs vary depending on the policy you select. The premiums for a basic Part D drug plan can cost up to $25 a month, while premiums for more comprehensive policies, which pay for some or all of your drugs in the doughnut hole, can run from $50 to $75 per month.

Consequently, if you take many drugs, the additional $300 to $900 per year you pay in premiums for a more robust Part D plan could be worth the extra money because you'd likely come out ahead financially.

What happens if you don't enroll

If you have low drug costs, getting Medicare drug coverage could cost you more now, but it will protect you from high drug costs in the future. Remember, we're talking insurance here. Joining Part D when you are first eligible to do so means that you pay a lower monthly premium than if you delay enrolling in an eligible plan for a year or two.

There's a financial penalty for not joining Part D when you are first eligible: It is 1% of the monthly premium for each month you don't enroll, and it is applied to all of your monthly premiums for the rest of your life.

Continued: Do you qualify?

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