- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2006

The number of drug plans in the Medicare prescription drug program will increase next year, giving consumers the option of further lowering their drug costs, federal officials announced yesterday.

Monthly premiums for beneficiaries who decide to stick with their current plan will remain around $24. But 83 percent of beneficiaries will have the option of choosing a less expensive plan in 2007, said Mark McClellan, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The enrollment period begins Nov. 15.

In the District and Maryland, even more beneficiaries will have the option of lowering their monthly premiums while in Virginia, 70 percent will be able to pay less.

The initial months of the program were plagued by consumer confusion over issues such as signing up for the appropriate plan that met a patient’s individual needs. Consumer advocates blamed the startup glitches on the large number of drug plans offered in 2006.

This year, the number of plans will increase because nearly no insurance companies pulled out of the program. Instead, eight companies are being added to the list offering nationwide coverage.

Mr. McClellan said the number of plans will not be a source of confusion this year because consumers do not have to switch plans and CMS is improving the “plan finder” tool on the agency’s Web site, www.medicare.gov, that will assist beneficiaries with choosing a different plan.

Mr. McClellan praised insurance companies for following the government’s recommendation to offer more enhanced drug plans.

“What we were looking for and got was a shift in the options available,” Mr. McClellan said. “There are still a lot of plans, but there are now a range of options with increased enhanced plans and coverage options.”

In the District, 55 drug plans will be available next year, up from last year’s 47. According to CMS, 87 percent of District residents will have access to less expensive drug coverage. In addition, 34 drug plans will offer coverage with no deductible. In 2006, 26 drug plans offered coverage with no deductible.

WellCare Health Plans Inc., an insurance company in Tampa, Fla., will offer the lowest monthly premium in the District and Maryland at $12.20 with a $265 deductible. At that price, consumers will get basic coverage and be subject to the gap in coverage.

In Virginia, 53 drug plans will be available to Medicare beneficiaries in 2007, seven more than were available in 2006, and 70 percent of the state’s Medicare beneficiaries will have the option of choosing a new plan with a lower premium than they paid in 2006.

The insurance giant Humana will offer the lowest premium in Virginia at $13.40 for its standard plan with an annual deductible of $265. Unlike last year, Humana will offer only generic coverage..

At a monthly premium of $41.70, First Health will provide a drug plan that covers both brand name drugs and generics through the coverage gap. No drug plan’s premium in Virginia will exceed $100.

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