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Save money by choosing right Medicare Part D plan

You've seen the ads on TV. • "Want to save money on your car insurance?" a voice booms. • You call your agent, are told you meet the requirements, change policies and save a bunch of money. • Just like that. Pretty slick. • Well, guess what? You can do the same thing with your Medicare insurance plan.

It's true, there won't be a TV pitchman to help by telling you which plan to pick and explaining exactly how much money you'll save. You can't just call your agent and order up a new plan. There are too many variables, because there are too many drugs.

You see, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2.6 billion prescriptions were ordered or provided in the United States in 2010.

Those orders were placed from a list of the, according to the National Drug Code Directory, 35,574 human prescription drugs available.

So, just think ... prescription providers can cover, not cover or partially cover any of that dizzying number of drugs. To make the matter even more complex, a provider can change a drug's coverage status from year to year.

There's no way around it. You have to do the work yourself — with the help of this special Medicare open enrollment section and Medicare's Plan Finder — to customize the plan to fit your prescription needs.

But if you want to save money, perhaps lots of money, it's worth the time and energy.

Get facts before picking

It's surprising how much people do not know about Medicare.

A survey of 1,100 people over the age of 65, commissioned by Express Scripts, found a high degree of confusion without even getting into an Obamacare discussion. (Remember: You do not need, want — and, in fact, aren't even eligible for — Obamacare if you are on Medicare.)

Anyway, among the survey's findings:

• 26 percent of those 65 and older don't know how to choose a Medicare plan.

• 31 percent of current plan holders say they'd rather stick with the plan they have than deal with finding a better one.

In other words, a quarter of the respondents didn't know how to pick a plan in the first place and a third of them stick with the one they end up picking year after year even if they really didn't know what they were doing when they picked it. Too much work to figure out if it continues to meet their needs.

Wait. It gets worse. Sixty-five percent of the 1,100 people surveyed in August didn't even know that Medicare's open enrollment begins in October. And more than three-quarters of them didn't know that, thanks to health care reform, the coverage gap — the temporary limit (also called the "donut hole") on what a drug plan will cover after you've spent a certain amount — is narrowing a little every year and will be completely gone in 2020.

Despite this, more than half the people in the survey incorrectly believe that as a result of health care reform, they'll be paying more for their prescription drugs in the gap.

Don't be misinformed. Do your homework. Find the plan that best fits your prescription drug needs, and remember that might not be the same plan you had last year or the one you'll need next year. Don't automatically go for low premiums or monthly rebate checks without a thorough comparison because, yep, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Whether you choose original Medicare and supplemental policies, or an all-in-one Medicare Advantage policy, your essential sources of information are still the official Medicare & You handbook and, even better,, which allows you to search for plans according to your health needs and budget.

Ready to get started saving money? Let's go.

And, good luck.

News researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Patti Ewald can be reached at