Medicare officials advise seniors to shop around

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal health officials encouraged Medicare participants on Thursday to shop around for their prescription drug coverage next year because it could include significant price increases or changes regarding which drugs the plans will cover.

Overall, the landscape for prescription drug coverage won't look dramatically different next year. The typical beneficiary will still have dozens upon dozens of plans to choose from, but most people will see an increase in their monthly premiums if they stay with the same insurer.

For those enrolled in the 10 most popular drug plans, the cost increases will range from 8 percent to as much as 64 percent, according to an analysis by Avalere Health, a consulting firm.

The monthly premium for the most popular Medicare Part D plan, the AARP Medicare Rx Preferred Plan, will increase 15 percent, from $32 to $37. The next most popular plans come from Humana Inc. The premium for the standard Humana plan will go up 60 percent, from about $25 to $40, while the premium for the enhanced Humana plan will go up from about $23 to $38.

Still, the vast majority of participants will have access to prescription drug coverage for the same amount or for less than they're paying now. They will, however, have to do some searching to find those offerings, said Kerry Weems, acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

"The engine behind Part D is choice and competition," Weems said.

The nation's 44 million Medicare beneficiaries can choose a drug plan only, or they can choose to get all of their health benefits through a Medicare Advantage plan. The drug-only plans offering standard coverage will rise from $27 to $32 next year, on average. Meanwhile, Medicare Advantage plans will rise from $18 to $21 on average, CMS officials said. The federal government provides much larger subsidies for the latter option. Also, the poor are eligible for drug coverage with no monthly premiums.

Medicare participants can begin enrolling in drug coverage for next year from Nov. 15 through Dec. 31.