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Medicare drug plan bargains abound—if you look

Medicare open enrollment season is around the corner, and lots of bargain plans are available to beneficiaries who shop around. But will they?

Two-thirds of drug-plan enrollees say they won't bother, accordingto a surveyreleased Wednesday by Medicare Today, a consortium of consumer and professional health groups. They see no reason to; 90 percent report that they're satisfied with their plan.

But even if they're not satisfied, seniors often don't tackle the job of comparison-shopping. Experts call this "the lock-in effect," and it can keep beneficiaries from taking the pills they've been prescribed.

Dave Tachney of Tampa, 68, is well aware that the cost of his Medicare prescription drug plan is going up and he's not happy about it.

"There are drugs I can't take now because I can't afford it," Tachney says.

Average plan price isn't rising

He's not the only one who will be digging deeper into his pockets this year. Most of the best-selling Medicare prescription drug plans are going up in 2013, some by quite a lot. That led to a misperception in the media and scary headlines a couple of weeks ago that the price for Medicare drug plans was going up.

In fact, it's not, according to a report from the Galen Institute, a free-enterprise think tank. Enough new low-cost plans are entering the market to offset any old ones that raise prices.

The average cost per plan, about $30 a month, has been stable for three years, says Galen's report, "Part D Is Still Working."It says the average basic premium is half what it was expected to be at this point when the law enacting the drug benefit passed in 2003.

In other words, Dave Tachney probably could find a less-expensive plan, if he would only look.

Leigh Purvis withAARP's Public Policy Institute says it's common for Medicare providers to draw plan members in with low prices--and then raise them.

"What plans do know is that once they have an enrollee in their plan, chances are they aren't going to move, which makes it possible for them to increase premiums and cost sharing the way that they have," Purvis says.

Joe Baker, the president of the Medicare Rights Center calls it the "lock-in effect."

"The lock-in effect is basically something that has been studied and shown that once someone chooses a part D prescription drug plan, that they stay with that plan even after premiums go up, or benefits might change to their detriment," Bakers says.

Too much choice?

Purvis says there are several reasons why an enrollee might stick with their plan even if it's not the best one for them. There are just so many to choose from -- almost three dozen in Florida.

"In a lot of cases they have more than 30 plans to sort through in their area," she says, "there are a lot of different things to look at--premiums, cost sharing, deductibles."

That's something that can make it frustrating for plan members when they try to shop around--ask Tachney.

"It's not doing much good. Stupid damn things!" he says.

Mary Grealy, who spoke to reporters about the Medicare Today survey, says Tachney's not alone in his frustration.

" We asked seniors were they likely to shop around. One in three said the plan information was too difficult for them to compare," she says.

She's asking for help.

"We really encourage the sons and daughters and grandchildren to help them find a plan that works better for them."

The popularity of the drug plan is one of the few issues that finds common ground for Republicans and Democrats, said Medicare Today's Mary Grealy.

"They agree on their support for the Medicare Part D program,"she says.

Premiums low, co-pays high?

Joe Baker with the Medicare Rights Center works with seniors to find them the best deal-- whether they think they need it or not.

"We want to look for cheaper plans but we also want to look for plans that also provide them coverage for their drugs," he says, "because if the plans are cheap but don't pay for the drugs, they are going to be expensive overall because you are going to be paying out of pocket."

Baker says that's just one of many things to consider when shopping around this open-enrollment season.

It's 11 days and counting.

--Health News Florida, journalism for a healthy state, is part of WUSF Public Media. Question? Comment? Contact Carol Gentry, 727-410-3266 (cell) or by e-mail.

Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.