Medicare's new Internet tool available to compare benefits

Medicare’s new Internet tool available to compare benefits

Beneficiaries can now go online to get detailed information about drug insurance plans. But not all firms have posted their prices yet.
After months of promises that a new Medicare drug benefit will cut their prescription costs starting next year, 700,000 beneficiaries in Minnesota now can go online to find out just how much they might save.

Mary Simmons, 80, of Brooklyn Center, could cut her $915 annual bill for five drugs by more than half under one plan – or more than double her costs under the wrong one.

Unveiled Monday, Medicare’s new Internet tool lets beneficiaries and their families enter a list of drugs and dosages into the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan Finder to compare the benefits of 63 or so competing plans. The exact number varies by county.

“This [Internet] program offers you unprecedented detail about prices you will pay at your local pharmacy for the drug you use,” said Mark McClellan, who heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administer the Medicare program.

The tool shows how much beneficiaries will pay in premiums and drug costs under each plan. But it also tells them how much they can save by substituting generic or other drugs for more expensive ones.

Enrollment opens Nov. 15 for the benefit that begins Jan 1. People who qualify now may enroll without penalty until May 15, 2006.

But don’t rush to make a decision based on data that’s online today, officials urged.

Not all firms offering insurance have posted their drug prices yet, officials said. In Minnesota, they include Medica and some UCare Minnesota plans, both offering plans that combine drug and health care coverage. They are expected to be available by next week.

Even when drug prices for all the plans are available, the prices could change – probably drop – when firms see what their competitors are offering, McClellan said. The site will be updated each week.

Getting started

To compare drug plans, go to and click on “Compare Medicare Prescription Drug plans.” Medicare estimates the process may take between 45 minutes and two hours.

Beneficiaries will need to decide whether to select a standalone drug plan or a Medicare Advantage plan that combines drug coverage with other health care insurance. The result will show all the plans covering their drugs, starting with the least expensive.

The new online tool also now allows trained counselors at Medicare, the Minnesota Linkage Line and other services to begin comparing the plans for beneficiaries who don’t have access to the Internet.

“Finally we can do something for people who are calling us everyday for help choosing a plan,” said Janine Stiles, health programs manager at the Minnesota Senior Federation. She also heads a coalition of nonprofit groups working to inform Minnesotans about the new drug benefit.

The drug benefit is expected to cost taxpayers about $720 billion over the next 10 years.

Medicare estimates that about 29 million of the 42 million eligible older and disabled Medicare beneficiaries will enroll in the voluntary program.

The new drug benefit will be especially helpful for low-income people with high drug costs. Their plans will be heavily subsidized.

Launch of the Web tool was delayed for three weeks because of problems with drug-price data from the firms offering drug-insurance plans.

Some already enrolled

While the program is open to all beneficiaries, Medicare already has enrolled and assigned plans to about 5.5 million people who are on both Medicare and Medicaid for the poor.

Medicare decided to automatically assign plans to those “dual eligibles” – who tend to be among the poorest and sickest and often include nursing home residents – so they do not lose coverage during the transition.

Mailed notices of those assignments began going out this week to about 90,000 Minnesotans, who were placed in one of 14 drug plans chosen at random.

Their drug costs, now covered by Medicaid, will be paid through a Medicare drug insurance plan starting Jan. 1. Because their coverage will be heavily subsidized, their total out-of-pocket costs will be just $1 each time they fill a prescription for generic drugs and $3 for brand-name drugs.

They may switch to another of the 14 plans at any time if they find that a different one would be better, although the advocacy group AARP says any of the plans should work for them.

Another 90,000 or so Minnesotans also may qualify for subsidized programs almost as inexpensive, but they will have to enroll in a plan to get that benefit.

B-man :wink: