How to Choose a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan in 5 Steps

Whether you’re new to Medicare or a beneficiary gearing up for the annual open enrollment period from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7, you’ll want to pay special attention to your prescription drug coverage.

Part D is the Medicare benefit that helps pay for prescription drugs and is administered by private insurers. People with Original Medicare (government-administered parts A and B) may purchase a stand-alone Part D plan to help with prescription drug costs.

The majority of Medicare Advantage plans, also administered by private insurance companies, include Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage. People who sign up for Medicare Advantage plans that do not provide Part D coverage may also purchase a stand-alone Part D plan.

In any case, it’s important to know the medicines that are covered and understand how the costs you pay for those medicines can vary from plan to plan.


What Medicare Part D covers

Medicare drug plans cover generic and brand-name drugs. All plans must meet a standard level of coverage set by Medicare. This means they must all cover the same categories of drugs, such as asthma or diabetes medicines, but plans can choose which specific drugs are covered in each drug category.

Each Medicare Part D plan lists the drugs it covers in what’s called a formulary. A specific formulary may not include your medicine but may include a similar option. You may want to consult with your doctor before your plan search to see what alternative medicines are feasible for you.

Like formularies, the cost of your drugs can vary from plan to plan depending on copays, tiered pricing and various restrictions discussed below. It’s important to research your coverage options thoroughly to find the plan that best fits your medical needs and your budget. “So often people just stick with the coverage they have even when there may be better, less expensive alternatives out there,” says Sue Greeno, advocate at the Center for Medicare Advocacy. These five steps can help you with your search.

1. Stay up to date with your current plan

Each year by early October, your plan will send you an Annual Notice of Change. This is also available on your insurer’s website. Greeno recommends everyone read this document carefully and check for the following critical information:

2. Use the Plan Finder

Because plans can change each year and because new plans become available each year, it makes sense to shop for the best Part D coverage for you during each annual Medicare open enrollment period.

The Plan Finder can help. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has added new features in the Plan Finder tool that make it easier to determine if your medicines are covered, what pharmacies are in network near you and what your total out-of-pocket costs will be including copays and deductibles.

3. Look for other restrictions

In addition to tiered pricing, prescription drug coverage may come with other restrictions.

4. Understand the exemption process

Many times patients will undergo an unexpected health change well into the calendar year that changes their prescription drug needs, which may include a medication not on their plan’s formulary. In other cases, patients may find a covered drug becomes ineffective, and they need to switch to a more expensive version or one that isn’t included in their plan’s formulary.

In these cases, with the help of their doctors, enrollees can file for an exemption. “In most cases insurers will grant the exemption,” Greeno says. But it is another hoop patients have to go through. Be sure to examine how this process works in the Part D plans you are considering.


5. Ask for help

Even people with modest drug needs can find comparing the various options challenging. You can get help with the process through your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program, so find the SHIP nearest you. Or, as Greeno suggests, check with your local senior center for help. Often staff can assist in open enrollment questions or will know a good resource. And, of course, keep in mind that all of these connections are virtual for the time being due to COVID-19.

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Published by Walecia Konrad