WASHINGTON — Millions of seniors face double-digit hikes in their Medicare prescription premiums next year unless they shop for cheaper coverage, a new analysis of government data finds.
Premiums will go up an average of 10 percent among the top 10 drug plans that have signed up about 70 percent of seniors, according to an analysis of Medicare data by Avalere Health, a private research firm.
Marketing for next year's drug plans gets under way Oct. 1, and seniors will see some of the biggest changes since the Medicare prescription benefit became available in 2006. More than 17 million are enrolled in private drug plans offered through Medicare.
"People are just going to have to get on top of this and shop around," said Dan Mendelson, president of Avalere, which does research for industry and government.
On the plus side, benefits will improve with a new 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs for those who land in the program's coverage gap, the dreaded "doughnut hole." It's a major step toward phasing out the gap by 2020, required under the new health care law. Seniors don't have to take any action to qualify for the discount.
But changes decreed by Medicare to force insurers to winnow down duplicative plans could cause some head-scratching and confusion.
More than 3 million seniors will see their plans discontinued, according to Avalere. Medicare says all but 300,000 will be seamlessly switched to another plan offered by the same insurer, but the Avalere data suggest it may not be that simple.
Medicare "is really reshaping the market," said Mendelson. "There are a lot of plans that are shutting down."
Seven of the top 10 national plans will charge higher premiums next year, the study found.
Medicare officials did not dispute Avalere's numbers, but they said they calculate changes in premiums differently.