Opinion

Shop for drug plan

Senior citizens who successfully navigated the sea of red tape to sign up for a Medicare drug plan they liked two years ago might have thought that was the end of it. They need to think again.

On average, premiums for stand-alone prescription drug plans under Medicare Plan D will increase by 21 percent next year. But some of the largest plans will raise premiums by more, some by nearly 90 percent.

When Plan D first was introduced two years ago, millions of seniors reviewed different programs, attended seminars, sought advice over the Internet and pestered their children to help them choose the prescription drug plan that best met their needs. But sometime between Thursday and the end of the year, they will have to go through that process all over again if they want to avoid double-digit increases in their monthly premiums.

Nearly 2 million low-income Medicare participants could be automatically switched to different insurance plans for their prescription drug coverage next year. But their premiums will be subsidized by the government, and many of the poorest beneficiaries will pay no monthly premiums at all.

While the plans are offered through the government, they are administered by nearly 1,800 private insurance companies across the nation. Premiums range from about $10 a month for basic coverage to more than $100 a month for enhanced coverage. After patients sign up for a plan, they are locked in for the year after the Jan. 1 deadline.

But just because seniors might be satisfied with their current plan, doesn't mean that plan will work the same next year. It's smart to shop around, and while the process might be complicated, signing up for the right plan can result in significant savings in annual drug costs.

All in all, the Medicare Part D program has been a boon for seniors. While Medicare beneficiaries filled 13 percent more prescriptions in 2006 than they ordinarily would have, they saved an average of 18 percent in out-of-pocket costs.

But this was no free lunch. Part D cost the federal government $32 billion last year, which amounts to about $200 to fill each additional prescription, according to researchers at Columbia University.

It is commendable that Medicare has provided access to prescription drug coverage for all seniors. While it is expensive for American taxpayers, the program has the potential of long-term health care savings because more people will be able to afford the drugs they need.

Still, we hope the upcoming presidential campaign provides an opportunity to take a fresh look at national health-care coverage across the board with an eye toward making coverage accessible to all and creating a more efficient system overall. Someday, perhaps, seniors won't have to constantly sweat the details of their prescription drug programs.

IN SUMMARY

Seniors once again will have to review Part D prescription drug plans to avoid premium increases.

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