Choose the Right Medicare Part D Drug Plan to Save Hundreds a Year
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Choose the Right Medicare Part D Drug Plan to Save Hundreds a Year

Lisa L. Gill — Consumer Reports
Nov 20, 2018

Two people walk into the same Walgreens in Denver to fill their prescriptions, both armed with their Medicare Part D insurance cards. One pays $27, but the other shells out $153—for the exact same drugs. That might seem unlikely, but it happens all too often.

Two people walk into the same Walgreens in Denver to fill their prescriptions, both armed with their Medicare Part D insurance cards. One pays $27, but the other shells out $153—for the exact same drugs.

That might seem unlikely, but it happens all too often, a Consumer Reports analysis suggests.

We investigated what Medicare beneficiaries might pay in 2019 for their prescription drugs in six U.S. cities by comparing three Part D plans identified by Medicare’s Plan Finder tool as having the least expensive retail drug costs.

In each city we looked at two pharmacies and checked prices for generic versions of five common drugs: the cholesterol drug atorvastatin (Lipitor), the painkiller celecoxib (Celebrex), the antidepressant duloxetine (Cymbalta), the diabetes drug pioglitazone (Actos), and the blood thinner clopidogrel (Plavix).

We found that what you pay for your drugs can vary by hundreds of dollars. Worse, even small mistakes during the sign-up process—which runs until Dec. 7—can cost you big-time.

Take the Denver example above. Someone filling prescriptions for the five drugs we looked at, plus paying a $16 monthly premium, could pay as little as $524 for a full year. But another person—at the same store with the same prescriptions but a different plan—would pay $1,686.

We found sizable price variations in each of the cities we looked at: Dallas; Denver; Des Moines, Iowa; Pittsburgh; Raleigh, N.C.; and Seattle.

How can that be?

“Plans can basically charge consumers any price they want,” says Stephen Buck, an industry consultant, a former executive of drug wholesaler McKesson, and a co-founder of GoodRx, a website that allows consumers to download drug coupons to use in local pharmacies. Plans do this, Buck says, by deciding how well they want to cover a drug—or if at all.

And earlier this year the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services gave insurers more flexibility when designing plans as a way to give consumers more options, says CMS spokesman Ray Thorn.

But, Buck says, the various plan options wind up being so complex that they are hard to compare, especially if you take multiple medications—and even if you use Medicare’s tool.

Thorn acknowledges as much. “There still is overwhelming confusion among Medicare beneficiaries about their coverage choices,” he says, adding that the agency is trying to make its digital tools easier to use.

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