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Health News Florida

Medicare Patients Can Save -- If

Today, Oct. 15, is the first day of open enrollment for Medicare beneficiaries to choose their drug plan and HMO-style Medicare Advantage plan for 2014.  They can save money if they do some research, but if they don't, most will pay more this year. 

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Researchers on Medicare enrollment predict that millions of beneficiaries will remain in their current plan rather than hassle with doing the research to see what has changed. And that would be a mistake, since so many plans are switching the drugs they cover or the premiums and co-pays they charge.

According to St. Augustine-based Q1Group ,  88 percent of Florida Medicare patients enrolled in a drug plan will have a premium increase if they don't switch plans.  Q1 computes the average increase as $6.45 a month for 950,000 people in Florida.

But it isn't necessary to pay more. As Q1Group points out, there are actually more zero-deductible plans available for 2014 than there were for this year, and the monthly premium for a zero-deductible plan is about $6 less than for this year, at $22.40.

The number of plans with premiums under $25 has gone up from two to six in Florida, Q1 says, and the lowest-cost premium is $12.60 a month, down from $15.

There are a lot of changes to drug plans nationally too, according to Kaiser Health News,  which reported on findings from Avalere Health. The consultants looked at the 10 most popular drug plans nationally and found that AARP UnitedHealthplan is raising premiums a whopping 55 percent, while a popular WellCare plan is dropping its premium by 38 percent. Another change: The popular SilverScript Basic plan is closed to new enrollment.

There's no way around it: Medicare beneficiaries who don't want to over-spend have to be prepared to do a bit of research at or on the Medicare Helpline at 1-800-MEDICARE (800-633-4227).

Those who are unable to do their own research or get help from a family member or friend can call the Senior Helpline, a volunteer program at 1-800-96 ELDER or 1-800-963-5337.

One thing to check is whether the beneficiary has an income low enough to qualify for "extra help" -- subsidies for premiums, deductibles and co-pays, as Stephen Nohlgren reports in the Tampa Bay Times.

Price isn't the only consideration. Shoppers need to make sure the plan they want actually includes the drugs they take.

But about one in three Medicare patients told Express Scripts in a survey in August they would not bother to do the research, as the Tampa Bay Times' Patti Ewald reports. One in four said they didn't know how.

This is one reason that Medicare plans raise premiums after they get good market share, because they know a lot of patients will stick with them rather than comparison-shop. In fact, in the industry Medicare beneficiaries are called "sticky" for that reason.

As the Kaiser article points out, the opening of Medicare enrollment is confusing many beneficiaries because it overlaps with the rollout of the Health Insurance Marketplace, the Affordable Care Act shopping site that opened Oct. 1. But while the younger-adult sign-up lasts into the spring, Medicare open-enrollment ends Dec. 7.

Copyright 2013 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

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