Now's the time for seniors to review drug, health plans

Medicare open enrollment comes nearly a month early this year
BY PAULA BURKES pburkes@opubco.com Published: October 11, 2011
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Attention all seniors on Medicare: It's time to review your drug plan to make sure there's not a cheaper or better one for next year. Eighty percent of beneficiaries on average can save $500 by changing drug plans annually.

Those are the main messages industry observers want Medicare beneficiaries to get — right now. Medicare's annual open enrollment period for changing drug and health plans starts Saturday and continues through Dec. 7, nearly a full month earlier than usual.

Ray Walker, director of the Oklahoma Insurance Department's free Senior Health Insurance Counseling Program (SHIP), recommends seniors every year seek counseling on Medicare Part D, which covers prescription drugs through private insurance companies.

“Medications for many seniors change yearly,” Walker said. “Their doctor may have switched their heart pill or added something for hypertension, and even if their prescriptions are the same, companies can change the drugs they cover from year to year.”

Moreover, a plan's rates and cost structure can go up annually, Walker said.

“It's not unusual for a plan they're paying $50 a month for this year to go up to $150 monthly,” he said.

If seniors don't make changes by Dec. 7, most will be locked into their drug plans for another year, Walker said. Meanwhile, many seniors aren't aware the enrollment period no longer extends to Dec. 31, he said.

With thousands of baby boomers turning 65 this year, the government pushed up enrollment to allow more processing time for Medicare and insurance companies before plans' Jan. 1 effective dates, Walker said. This year, 13 percent of the U.S. population is 65 or older, statistics show.

Finding the best plan

The SHIP program can help beneficiaries find the most cost-effective and best plans by using the plan finder search engine on medicare.gov, Walker said. Counselors enter beneficiaries' information, such as birth date and ZIP code, along with their medications and the pharmacies they like to use to find their best options.

Though most seniors in Oklahoma who carry drug plans choose Part D Medicare insurance, others have Medicare Advantage (MA) health plans that include prescription drug coverage, Walker said. During the Oct. 15 to Dec. 7 enrollment period, counselors can help seniors pick up or drop a Medicare Advantage plan or switch to a new one, he said.

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AT A GLANCE

Medicare election period

• Most Medicare beneficiaries can change their drug or health plans only once per year, during Medicare's annual election period. This year, the election period is Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, almost a month earlier than before.

• For free counseling on Medicare prescription drug and health plans, call the Senior Health Insurance Counseling Program (SHIP) at the Oklahoma Insurance Department at (800) 763-2828, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Counselors can answer questions or set appointments for their office at 3625 NW 56, Suite 100.

• Seniors in Oklahoma, Logan, Cleveland and Canadian counties also may call the Areawide Aging Agency at 943-4344, which this year has trained an additional contingency of volunteers to advise beneficiaries in face-to-face counseling at locations across the metro area.

• On-site counseling also is available in Enid and other outlying areas. Rural Oklahomans may call (800) 211-2116 for Areawide Information and Assistance.

Extra Help/Low-Income Subsidy

Seniors with annual incomes up to $16,335 ($22,065 for married couples) and up to $12,640 in savings vehicles and property excluding their home ($25,260 for married couples) may qualify for extra help from Medicare to pay prescription costs. For most, costs will be no more than $2.50 for each generic/$6.30 for each brand-name covered drug. Other people pay only a portion of their premiums and deductibles.

When to enroll in Medicare

It's critical you enroll when you turn 65. If you fail to sign up for Part B within a seven-month period (including the month you turn 65 and the three months on either side), you'll face a 10 percent annual penalty on your Medicare insurance for life. To sign up for Medicare, call the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213. If you begin drawing Social Security benefits early at age 62, you'll automatically be enrolled in Medicare at age 65. You can defer Part B until you quit working. But if your firm has fewer than 20 employees, you must enroll in Part B because your employer's group insurance may not pay.

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