Some Seniors Pay Too Much for Prescription Drugs

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Some Seniors Pay Too Much for Prescription Drugs if They Don't Review Their Medicare Part D PlanMADISON - In these hard times, who would turn their back on an easy $150?

Many Medicare Part D recipients may do just that if they don't review their prescription-drug plan before the end of 2008.

"Everyone enrolled in a Medicare prescription-drug program should make sure their plan is really the best one for them. And time is of the essence," said Lee Vermeulen, director of the Center for Drug Policy at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics.

Medicare Part D participants are allowed to switch plans once a year during open enrollment from November 15 to December 31. People who are enrolled can get information on the cost of their current plan and alternatives that might save money by calling a customer-service representative at 1-800-MEDICARE or through the Medicare website, If participants miss the open enrollment period, they are automatically re-enrolled in their current plan.

Vermeulen was on a team (that included researchers from Harvard and Princeton universities and the Brookings Institution) which found that older Americans who review their prescription-drug plans could save $150 per year or more.

"The study found a startling amount of money can be saved by reviewing prescription-drug plans each year," said Vermeulen.

Four hundred Wisconsin senior citizens were interviewed about their current prescriptions during the 2006 open-enrollment period. Half of them received a letter describing potential savings by changing plans based on their specific drugs. The letter showed the lowest-cost plan available to them and the potential savings which, on average, was $500 for an older adult with four to six prescriptions. The other half of the group got only a standard informational pamphlet. A follow-up showed that 28 percent of seniors who got personalized letters changed plans. Just 17 percent of those who got only the pamphlet changed plans.

During a second follow-up in early 2008, the researchers found that the average savings among older adults who made different choices as a result of the personalized letters saved at least $150 or nine percent of annual drug expenses.

"Our research also found that, in contrast to some people's expectations, a call to 1-800-MEDICARE is quick, easy, and delivers the help you are looking for," said Marian Wrobel, a researcher with the Ideas42 Program at Harvard University.

For those who call, a customer service representative will ask participants about their prescriptions and send out a personal report that's similar to the one used in the study.

Wrobel and Vermeulen caution that it's important to request a personalized report and not just compare plan premiums. Vermeulen said that's because about three-quarters of total annual cost paid by Medicare beneficiaries will be in pharmacy co-payments, the amount of money that patients must pay every time they get a prescription filled.

"Depending on what prescription medications a patient is taking, different plans can vary greatly in total annual cost," Vermeulen said.

"Given the cost savings, people are encouraged to work with their older friends and relatives to make sure they have chosen the best, least expensive plan possible. A nudge to make a phone call is an easy thing to do. And the potential cost savings makes a thoughtful holiday season gesture," said Vermeulen.

Date Published: 04/30/2009

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