It's time to enroll in Medicare Part D

Grace-Marie Turner It's that time of year again, when gift-giving, good food and family get-togethers are on all our minds.

But amidst the hustle and bustle of holiday activities, seniors enrolled in the new Medicare prescription drug plans need to be thinking about whether they want to stay with their current plan. For those interested in making a switch, now is the time.

It's also the time for seniors who didn't pick a Medicare drug plan before last May's cut-off date to enroll. Every month that seniors delay costs them an additional 1 percent in premiums.

Between Nov. 15 and Dec. 31 every year, Medicare hosts an open enrollment period in which seniors can re-examine their current prescription drug coverage and switch or sign up for the first time.

Those with retiree coverage through their former employers generally don't need to do anything if their employer offers a qualifying Part D plan.

This yearly period allows seniors to take advantage of the many competing offerings provided under Medicare's drug plan and pick the one that's best for them.

The open-enrollment period also keeps plan providers on their toes. Knowing that beneficiaries have the option to switch to a competitor means that insurers are always trying to come up with better plans - which results in lower prices and a broader array of choices.

This option to choose between a host of private insurers is what makes Medicare Part D so different from other government programs.

By leveraging the power of private-sector competition, Medicare Part D provides more drugs than the frequently vaunted programs in Europe or Canada. Part D is also vastly superior to the drug benefit program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which uses a more traditional government-run model.

Almost 90 percent of all prescription medications on the market are currently available through Part D.

That's in sharp contrast to other health-care systems across the world. In France, for example, the government recently asked doctors to prescribe fewer medicines to cut costs. In Germany, many of the most-innovative drugs aren't reimbursable.

And even in the United States, the Department of Veterans Affairs refuses to cover many of the newest, most-effective pharmaceuticals unless other drugs are first tried.

When one compares any of these programs to Part D, there's simply no comparison.

That's probably why most seniors are pleased with their current Part D plans. Earlier this year, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that more than eight in 10 seniors enrolled in the service are satisfied with the plan they picked; that their initial experiences have been positive; and three out of four would pick the same plan again. In fact, the drug benefit is actually offering more and better choices than anyone anticipated when Congress crafted the program. Although the government estimated that seniors would pay $37 a month in premiums for their Medicare drug coverage, the average premium has turned out to be much lower - just $25 a month.

These choices have resulted in some great deals for health-care consumers. Some prescription drug plans, for example, cost as little as $5 a month. Others eliminate the $250 deductible before coverage kicks in.

Many plans are providing drug coverage in the infamous "doughnut hole" - the gap in the standard plan where insurance coverage is interrupted between moderate and high drug expenses. As a result, the majority of America's seniors - 72 percent - now have some drug coverage in the doughnut hole.

Medicare Part D's success owes much to the many options it provides to beneficiaries.

This holiday season, seniors who aren't fully satisfied with their coverage should take advantage of those options by switching to the plan that's best for them. And for those who haven't signed up yet, this is the time.

Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a research organization that focuses on free-market ideas for health reform.

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