Here we go again. Senior citizens now have six weeks to sign up for another year of Medicare Part D -- the prescription drug benefit -- that goes along with Medicare Part A (hospitalization), Part B (outpatient and doctor costs) and Medigap (the supplement that covers other costs including co-payments and deductibles).
It's a must-do project, even if you're among the few seniors who don't currently take prescription drugs. If you don't sign up when you first become eligible, there will be big penalties to pay once you do need some prescriptions -- and for sure you
need them at some point.
The only exceptions are those seniors who are covered by a comparable company or retiree prescription plan, or those who have signed up for an all-in-one Medicare Advantage plan. Some seniors have prescription drug access through the Veterans Administration, though they may want to choose an inexpensive Part D plan for drugs the VA does not cover.
For those who recently turned 65 and now qualify for Medicare, this will be the first time going through the process of choosing the least expensive plan. But
senior, even those currently enrolled and happy with their drug plan, should go through the process of reviewing the alternatives for 2009. That's because each year the plans change the prices of the drugs they cover, and may not even include the same medicines in the year ahead.
So, here's my annual, step-by-step guide through the
, the only place that can sort through all the alternatives plans to find you the best coverage at the least cost in a plan that is available at a pharmacy near you!
Finding Your Plan at Medicare.gov
Get a complete list of all the medicines -- and dosages -- that you are now taking. The easiest way is to ask your pharmacist for this list, or simply line up all your prescription bottles.
. (If you don't have a computer, you can call 1-800-MEDICARE, and they will help you through this process over the telephone.)
Click on the line near the top of the first page screen that says: "
Medicare Prescription Drug Plans - 2009 Plan Data
On the next page, click on the box that says "
Find and Compare Plans
On the next page, you have a choice of either a "personalized" search or a "generalized" search. If you already have your red, white, and blue Medicare card, you can use the personalized search, when you input your Medicare number and other information from your card. (You can use the generalized search to find and compare plans in your ZIP code.)
On the next page, you will have an opportunity to enter the drugs you are currently taking, and the dosages. Even if you do not take prescription drugs now, you must fill out this page, stating that fact. This list can be saved securely for your future visits to the Medicare.gov Web site.
You can either type in the names of your drugs, or search for them alphabetically. The most common dosage will automatically pop up, but you should be sure that is the dosage you are taking. The program will also let you know if there is a less expensive generic available. When you've finished listing your prescriptions, click "continue" to move to the next page where you can re-check the list of names and dosages. Then click "continue" again.
Next, you'll be asked if you have a specific pharmacy that you'd like to work with -- one that's within walking distance of your home, for example. Then click again.
You've finally arrived at the most important page -- the one that lists all the plans, ranked with the
lowest total cost
at the top of the list. You can select up to three plans to compare. You can click to see how you might lower your cost, perhaps by switching to a generic drug. Or the program might suggest a less-expensive alternative drug in the same category. That's something you'd have to discuss with your physician.
This year there are also "star" ratings, up to 5 stars, based on a survey conducted for Medicare about the quality and performance of those plans over the past year.
After comparing the plans by cost, click on the name of each plan provider to find full details, including a helpful graph of the average monthly cost, as well as information about participating pharmacies and mail-order availability. You can print out the pages for each plan, and keep them handy.
Before signing up, call the plan's toll-free number and reconfirm their prices and coverages for the drugs you take, as well as all co-payments. Then you're ready to ask them to send you the application so you can sign up!
And finally, a plea for help: The government should be required to make this decision-process easier for seniors. But since they haven't, I'm asking the more computer-literate among you to clip this column, find a senior and offer to help navigate the process. It's easy once you've done it.
And that's The Savage Truth.
Terry Savage is an expert on personal finance and also appears as a commentator on national television on issues related to investing and the financial markets. Savage's personal finance column in the Chicago Sun-Times is nationally syndicated. She was the first woman trader on the Chicago Board Options Exchange and is a registered investment adviser for stocks and futures. Savage currently serves as a director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Corp.