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It's not too late to save big on your Medicare drug plan

Q. Last year, to great fanfare, AARP and UnitedHealthcare announced a Part D drug plan for $15 a month, which my wife switched to because it was the least expensive plan available. (She doesn’t use any prescriptions regularly but enrolled in Part D when first eligible to avoid a late enrollment penalty down the road.) Thankfully I thought to double-check premiums during open enrollment this year and discovered that AARP/UHC had quietly increased the premium to $23.60 a month. Meanwhile, the Humana Walmart plan went down to $12.60 a month, so she switched again.

A. If only everyone were as smart a healthcare consumer as you! This is a textbook example of why people should review their Part D options every single year, instead of just letting their plan renew automatically. The AARP plan may still be a bargain for someone who take a mix of drugs that are priced well by this plan, but as your wife doesn’t need any regular prescriptions, she’s absolutely on the money to shop strictly on premium.

There are still two days left in the annual Medicare Open Enrollment period (it ends on Dec. 7), so people who haven’t reviewed your Part D coverage still have time left. Here’s how to go about it. The process takes a while but if you go step-by-step and are patient, it’s not difficult.

Your wife’s savings, while nothing to sneeze at, will come to just $132 a year. But as health journalist Charles Ornstein discovered during his annual Thanksgiving ritual of reviewing his in-laws’ coverage, even if you take only a few generic drugs, not checking every year can cost you a lot more than that. Here’s his report on what happened:

"Last year, I helped them pick a pretty awesome plan that cost each of them $31.10 per month. It has no drug deductible, meaning they didn’t have to pay out of their pockets before their drug coverage began. And generic drugs cost them nothing. Both only take generic drugs — several of them, mind you — and their annual drug costs were less than $375.

But if they had chosen to stay with their plan for next year, prices would have exploded. Their monthly premium would have increased to $47.10 and they would have had drug co-pays of at least $3 per prescription. When you add it all up, my mother-in-law’s annual costs would have more than tripled, to $1,146, and my father-in-law’s would have increased to $1,086.

That’s a steep price for doing nothing.

By shopping around, my father-in-law was able to select a plan that will cost him $415 (assuming his drugs remain the same.) My mother-in-law’s costs will increase to $691. Even though both will see their costs rise, by changing their plans, they cut their tab in half from what it would have been."

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