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Step-by-step instructions on how to use medicare.gov Web site

It's a bit tedious, but Medicare's Web site is the only one way to get a detailed handle on what various drug and health plans are likely to cost you. Some plans offer premium rebates but skimp on coverage elsewhere. Some cost you less for hospitalization but more for drugs. The Medicare Web site will estimate costs based on the specific drugs you take. Private Web sites have copied it, but none offers Medicare's full wealth of detail. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to navigate www.medicare.gov. A thorough search could easily take an hour, but could save you hundreds of dollars. One way of lowering costs is by switching to generics or other brands, when available; first discuss this option with your doctor.

HMOs, PPOs and PFFS health plans

1 Go to www.medicare.gov and click on Compare Health Plans under Health and Drug Plans.

2 Click on Find & Compare Health Plans.

3 Click on Begin General Plan Search.

4 Enter requested information and click Continue.

5 Click Continue.

6 Click Enter My Drugs.

7 Enter your drugs one at a time and click Continue.

8 Change the doses, refill quantity and frequency of your drugs if the computer has not entered them correctly. Then click Continue.

9 Click on Skip This Step, regarding password.

10 The computer will ask you if you want to specify pharmacies. Important: Click No, then click Continue. If you click Yes at this point you may narrow your search too much and skew the results.

11 This is the list of HMOs, PPOs, Private Fee for Service Plans and Special Needs Plans available to you. The type of plan (HMO, PPO, etc.) is listed under its name. The list appears ranked from lowest to highest in the column Estimated Annual Cost For People Like You, including premiums, deductibles, your share of drug costs and any rebates the plan offers. But that can be deceptive. You can reduce the costs of many plans substantially if you are willing to use substituted drugs. You have to dig deeper to get a handle on cost. Print this plan list and use it as your work sheet.

12 Just above the plan list, click on the tab that says View Drug Benefits and Quality. Use the Sort function at right to sort the plans by Plan Name and ID Numbers. Now go to the bottom of the list and click on "All on page.'' This gives you a list of all plans and their drug benefits.

13 Pick a plan that interests you and click on Lower This Cost found in Columns 2 and 3.

14 This chart shows potential savings if you accept substitute drugs, although you have to do some math. Subtract Column 4 (estimated cost after savings) from Column 2 (estimated cost before savings). That's a monthly savings, so multiply by 12 to get your annual savings. On your work sheet, subtract the potential annual drug savings from the cost of that plan. That tells you how much the plan will cost if you accept all suggested substitute drugs. Caution: Before enrolling in any plan, make sure your doctor approves these substitutions.

15 Repeat Step 14 to get possible reduced costs for other plans that interest you. Caution: Use the Back Button on your computer to return to the alphabetical list. Do not use the Return to Personalized Plan List button. If you do, that will take you back to Step 11.

16 After you have a handle on possible cost savings, it's time to explore other plan provisions that interest you. The charts on the following pages here in LifeTimes let you quickly compare features like your hospital and doctor copays and network sizes and maximum copays. Medicare's Web site offers much greater detail. Perhaps you use durable medical equipment, such as a wheelchair or hospital bed, or know you need a hip replacement next year and will be doing rehabilitation in a rehab/nursing facility. These costs can vary greatly by plan. Just above any plan list, click on the tab that says View Health Benefits and Quality.

17 To get an alphabetical list of the plans, go to the Sort function at top right and sort by name. Check the boxes to the left of three plans that interest you and click on Compare Health Benefits at the top of the list.

18 Examine any features that interest you. Out-of-network maximum copays can save you lots of money if you travel, for example. Some plans have vision, hearing and dental benefits. Examine Medicare's star system of quality ratings. For full details, click on View Plan Details under each plan's name. If you want tnt to examine more than three plans, use the Back button on your computer to return to the alphabetical list.

19 Before settling on a plan, check the pharmacies it uses. Click on View Plan Drug Details, then View Pharmacy Network. This gives you a list of pharmacies that accept your plan. Note that a box at the bottom of the pharmacy list allows you to widen your search in miles if you can't find a pharmacy. If the chart says "Not Applicable," it just means that all your network pharmacies cost the same.

20 Enroll by contacting the plan provider. You'll find phone, e-mail and Web site information on the plan page.

Stand-alone drug plans

1 Go to www.medicare.gov and click on Compare Drug Plans under Health and Drug Plans.

2 Click on Find & Compare Plans.

3 Click on Begin General Search at right.

4 Enter requested information and click Continue.

5 Review your information and click Continue.

6 Click on Enter My Drugs.

7 Enter your drugs one at a time. Then click Continue.

8 Change the doses, refill quantity and frequency of your drugs if the computer has not entered them correctly. Then click Continue.

9 Click on Skip This Step, regarding password.

10 The computer will ask you if you want to specify pharmacies. Important: Click No, then click Continue. If you click Yes at this point you may skew the results by narrowing your search too soon.

11 This is your Personalized Plan List, ranked in order of the cheapest plans for someone taking your drugs, including premiums, deductibles and your share of the drug costs. The initial list shows only five plans. Scroll to the bottom and click All One Page so you can see all plans. Note the cost is usually lower for 90-day mail-orders.

12 You often save lots of money when you substitute generic drugs for brands, or one brand for another — and that can change which plans are the least expensive. Print the plan list out and use it as your work sheet for taking notes.

13 For any plan that interests you, click on Lower This Cost either in the retail column or mail-order column.

14 This comparison chart shows potential savings if you accept suggested substitute drugs, although you have to do some math. Subtract Column 4 (estimated cost share after savings) from Column 2 (estimated cost share before savings). That's a monthly savings, so multiply by 12 to get your annual savings. Subtract that annual savings from the cost of the plan on your work sheet. That tells you how much the plan costs if you accept all its substitute drugs. Caution: Before enrolling in any plan, make sure your doctor approves these substitutions.

15 Click Return to Personalized Plan List at bottom and repeat Step 14 for the first five plans, if not more. Sometimes a plan ranked as low as seventh or eighth on the plan list is actually the cheapest plan if you are willing to accept the substitute drugs.

16 Before settling on a plan, check the pharmacies it uses. Click on the plan name. At top left, click on View Pharmacy Network. This gives you a list of pharmacies that accept your plan. Note that a box at the bottom of the pharmacy list allows you to widen your search in miles if you can't find a pharmacy. If the chart says "Not Applicable," it just means that all your network pharmacies cost the same.

17 Enroll by contacting the plan provider. You'll find phone, e-mail and Web site information on the plan page.

Step-by-step instructions on how to use medicare.gov Web site 10/27/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 3:04pm]

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