Picking best Medicare plan can save you money

Picking best Medicare plan can save you money
Picking best Medicare plan can save you money
Published October 13 2014
Updated October 14 2014

Comparison shopping is only fun when comparing the price of things one's heart desires — like a designer purse, a new car or tortilla chips.

Looking for the best price on life's boring necessities — car insurance, a washer and dryer, pool chemicals — not so much.

Same goes for the pain of having to slog through mountains of data and numbers trying to find the best Medicare Advantage or Part D plan. But, at open enrollment time, which is now, everyone 65 and older who wants health care (and enough money left over to be able to eat) must put down his or her head and ... Figure. It. Out.

If that's you, you have until Dec. 7.

I received a phone call a couple of weeks ago from a woman named Jan. She implored me to alert senior citizens to re-evaluate their Medicare plans. Seems her husband was diagnosed with cancer last year and their medicine needs changed dramatically.

She said she started searching for a plan to better fit their needs the first day she could, but the Plan Finder at medicare.gov was so slow or so busy, she couldn't get on. "The little wheel just kept spinning," she said. Not to be deterred, she tried again later that night when there were fewer people trying to use it.

She entered the prescriptions she and her husband use and the dosages and voila! She found there were several plans that provided the drugs they needed at a cost lower than the plan they had last year.

The Plan Finder really is the best tool available to you. You can find instructions on how to use it inside this section.

But your medicines didn't change, you say? Well, even if you and Husband Herb or Wife Wanda are taking the exact medicines you were last year, guess what? The carrier you had last year might not be covering those drugs in the same way this year. Mind-numbing? Yes, it is.

And, finding the best plan isn't easy. Or fun. Or, even, successful much of the time. In a recent analysis, only 5 percent of Medicare beneficiaries had picked the cheapest plan.

And, if you think your doctor should help you pick the best drug policy, you should know that even doctors have a hard time. Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond last year gave 70 medical students and doctors in residence this scenario:

"Imagine that one of your friends, whom we'll call Bill, has asked you to help him in choosing a Medicare prescription drug plan. He has made it clear that he is not sure how to choose among the different drug plans, and therefore would like you to make the choice for him. However, Bill has told you a little about the type of drug plan he would like. He does not want to spend a lot of money. That is, he wants to keep his annual cost, monthly premium, and annual deductible as low as possible.

"He is, however, not sure whether he should get a plan that offers coverage in the gap. He is also interested in a company that he knows and feels he can trust. Finally, he expects to get all of his drugs by calling a toll-free phone number, and having them mailed to his home. In the screens that follow, you will see information about a range of drug plans (their name, their estimated annual cost, their monthly drug premium, the number of network pharmacies, whether they offer coverage in the gap, and their annual deductible). Please try to make the best choice for Bill."

Participants were then provided information on drug plans taken directly from the Medicare Part D website: the plan name, estimated annual cost, monthly drug premium, annual deductible, coverage in the gap, number of network pharmacies.

How'd they do?

When they had three plans from which to choose for Bill, two-thirds picked the right plan. When they were given nine plans to choose from, only one-third picked the lowest-cost plan.

Andrew Barnes, one of the authors of the Virginia Commonwealth study, said it would be easier if people had fewer plans to pick from, less information to wade through or even if Medicare itself estimated which drug plan would be cheapest for each beneficiary and automatically enrolled him or her in it.

Well, what do we do until any of that happens — if it does? We asked Barnes.

Keep plugging. "Seniors should shop around each year if their medication needs have changed or are expected to change. And, even if they haven't, seniors may find a more affordable plan — if they shop again — than the plan they are currently enrolled in," Barnes said.

Hopefully, we've helped you. And when you're done picking that drug plan, you can go shopping for something fun. Like new shoes.