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Finding the lowest-cost Part D plans for the prescription drugs that you take

People enrolled in Part A and Part B of Medicare must also have prescription drug coverage. Otherwise, they may later have to pay lifetime late-enrollment penalties. Their drug coverage can come from employer supplemental plans, Part D stand-alone plans, Medicare Advantage plans that include drug coverage, or Veterans Administration drug coverage.

Individuals can often lower their drug costs regardless of the type of plan they have. Among other steps they can take, they should use the least-cost refill schedule (retail or mail-order). If they are enrolled in a Part D plan (either a stand-alone plan or an Advantage plan that includes Part D coverage), it’s important that they review the plan during each year’s open enrollment period. Several large studies have shown that almost 90% of people in Part D stand-alone plans are not in a low-cost plan.

The only way to find the lowest-cost Part D plan for a specific set of drugs is to use the Medicare Plan Finder at the Medicare web site. Or call 800-MEDICARE or contact the local state health insurance program, which will conduct a plan search at no cost. Those who want to do it themselves can use the Medicare Part D Plan Finder using the instructions in the files at the bottom of this page.

Using Medicare's Prescription Drug Plan Finder

This file has step-by-step instructions for using the Medicare web site to find the lowest-cost Part D plans for the prescription drugs that you take.

Managing Medicare’s Costs

  • Healthy people can save money with less comprehensive Medigap plans

    When people first enroll In Part A and Part B of Medicare, they have a one-time opportunity to purchase a Medigap policy without having to disclose pre-existing conditions. But this opportunity goes away after six months.

    There are only four states where the six- month rule does not apply — Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New York. In the other 46 states, when people have health problems, even minor ones, they may be charged higher premiums if they try to get a Medigap policy after their first six months of enrollment in Part A and Part B. And if they have serious health issues, they will be denied coverage.

    That’s why people in poor health who do not have employer retiree coverage will almost always get Medigap policies when they first enroll in Medicare – it may be their only chance. Those in good health, on the other hand, may enroll in Advantage plans to save money. And in so doing, they accept the risk — probably small — that they will not be able to get a Medigap policy later.

    Except for their high costs, Medigap policies are the optimal coverage for older retirees who do not have employer plans. The most attractive feature of Medigap policies is that they do not have networks and are accepted by all Medicare providers. As people age, the flexibility in the choice of doctors and other providers can become increasingly important, with older retirees more likely to see several specialists.

    In contrast to Medigap policies, Advantage plans have provider networks. And as people age and use more medical services, there may not be a plan network that includes all their doctors or that includes an advanced treatment center. But if people with Medigap policies develop serious illnesses and want to go to the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins or other large state-of-the-art clinic, they will be covered.

    While it’s true that Advantage PPO plans include some coverage for out-of-network services, patients’ costs may rise sharply when they go outside the network. Most Advantage PPO plans charge between 30% and 50% of the cost of out-of-network office visits and treatments. On top of that, many Advantage PPO have out-of-pocket limits as high as $10,000 when out-of-network services are included.

    Another selling point for Medigap policies is that insurance companies do not make the coverage decisions. Instead Medicare, which has been compared to an overly permissive grandparent, determines whether a treatment or procedure will be covered. And if Medicare covers it, the Medigap policy is required to cover it, up to the policy limits.

    With Advantage plans, though, insurance companies do make many coverage decisions. Although they are required to cover the same services as traditional Medicare, Advantage plans are more likely to restrict coverage in various ways, especially for expensive treatments.

    The dilemma for many new retirees, then, is whether to get a high-priced Medigap policy or to enroll in an Advantage plan and assume the slight risk of not being able to switch to a Medigap policy later when they may need it.

    A middle path for someone in good health is to get a less expensive, less comprehensive Medigap plan that nevertheless has good benefits. Of the ten Medigap plans, there are three that have substantially lower premiums and that cover all of Medicare’s services except for the Part A and Part B deductibles. The tradeoff is that these plans all have higher out-of-pocket risks than the comprehensive plans.

    When comparing Medigap plans, it’s helpful to remember that Medicare is the first or primary payer and covers most of the costs. The Medigap policy is secondary or supplemental coverage, and depending on the plan, it pays some, all, or none of the remaining balance. As an example, Medicare pays 80% of the cost for most medical treatments, and a Medigap plan will pay for some or all of the 20% balance. Since Medicare picks up most of the tab, the risk in the less comprehensive plans is smaller than people may initially realize.

    In the chart below, these three plans are compared with the standard Plan F, which is the most expensive Medigap plan.

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