NORTH PALM BEACH, Fla. (10/31/11)--If you're enrolled in or are about to enroll in the Medicare Part D (prescription drug coverage) program, you have until Dec. 7 to decide on your 2012 coverage. Unless you switch to a five-star Medicare Advantage Program, you will have to wait a year before you can enroll if you miss that deadline (Bankrate.com
The open enrollment period--the window during which you can join, switch, or drop your plan--has increased by a week and ends almost a month earlier than last year's Dec. 30 deadline.
Whether you're searching for the first time, or considering changing, start your fact-finding at Medicare.gov
. Click Find Drug and Health Plans and use the Medicare Plan Finder to compare deductibles and co-pays for your prescriptions under various plan scenarios.You can do a general search or, if you're already enrolled, a personalized search. Websites can make mistakes, so take the time to verify that your drugs will actually be covered.
If you like, you can get help. The State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIP) have volunteer counselors in every state to help you pick a Part D or Medicare Advantage plan, either over the phone or in person. Start your search by typing "helpful contacts" in the Medicare.gov
search engine and find SHIP in the dropdown menu. Do it now, because counselors are getting busy as the deadline approaches.
You also might get help at drugstore chains such as Walgreens or CVS. Your favorite pharmacist may even be able to help you.
If you're already enrolled, review the coverage, co-pays, and out-of-pocket expenses, as well as plan premiums. Plans are in flux due to changes in the health-care law in 2011. For example, your Part D plan could be changing the drugs it covers.
You'll find information about changes in enrollment and coverage, benefits, costs, or service area in your "Annual Notice of Change," which you should have received by Sept. 30. If you don't have it, go to Medicare.gov
and click Check Your Enrollment.
Before you do anything, follow these steps to save yourself potentially thousands of dollars:
Narrow your choices. When you use Medicare online tools, you most likely will see between 30 and 40 Medicare Part D Options, along with several Medical Health Care plans--including Medicare Advantage Plans--with or without drug coverage. Pick the best three plans and compare total annual costs side by side.
Know what drugs are covered by the plans you're comparing. The list of prescription drugs preferred by a particular plan is known as a "formulary." Costs for drug formularies can change every year and vary widely from plan to plan.
Explore ways to maneuver around the doughnut hole. The Medicare Part D coverage gap known as the "doughnut hole" is getting smaller each year, but you still want to avoid it. In 2012, you'll pay half of the cost of brand-name drugs covered by your plan when your total retail drug costs (not what you pay, but what the drugs cost retail) reach $2,930, until you reach the out-of-pocket threshold of $4,700. Avoid this by using generics or by checking wholesale clubs. Type "lower costs in coverage gap" on Medicare.gov to learn more ways to reduce the costs.
Sign up for Medicare Part D on time. Sign up during your initial seven-month enrollment period centered on your 65th birthday--whether you think you'll need it or not. If you wait until your eligibility period ends, you may have to pay a penalty to get it later, and you may have to pay it each month for as long as you have Medicare drug coverage.
For related information, read "Review Insurance to Ensure Proper Coverage" in the Home and Family Finance Resource Center