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What You Need to Know About Part D Prescription Drug Plans

How to make sure the medicines you take are covered

Mature woman researching medication on tablet computer.

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En español | As you are deciding how you will pay for your prescription drugs when you enroll in Medicare, one of your major tasks is to make sure the medicines you take regularly are covered under the plan you select. For most of its history, Medicare did not have a prescription drug benefit. Congress added coverage for medicines that took effect in 2006.

As with most Medicare benefits, choosing a Part D prescription drug plan can be complicated, as the program has many twists and turns. Here are some questions and answers that can help you navigate the process:

What does Part D cover?

Part D pays for outpatient prescription drugs — in other words, medicine you take yourself. (If you receive chemotherapy, dialysis or other medicines that are injected or given intravenously at a doctor’s office or outpatient facility, Medicare Part B kicks in.) However, Part D does cover some self-injected medicines, such as insulin for diabetes.

What doesn’t Part D cover?

Part D does not pay for over-the-counter medications, such as cough syrup or antacids. It also doesn’t cover some prescription drugs, such as drugs used to help grow hair, medicines to help you gain or lose weight, or prescription vitamins.

Does Part D cover brand-name and generic drugs?

Yes. But most plans charge higher cost-sharing for brand-name drugs. In addition, each individual Part D plan has its own list of the drugs it covers and charges cost-sharing that varies by drug and sometimes even by where you fill your prescription.

What does Part D cost?

That’s complicated. How much you pay for prescriptions under Part D depends on the individual plan and how many medicines you take. Here’s a breakdown of the costs.

First, there will be a monthly premium. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) estimate that the average monthly Part D premium for 2019 will be $32.50, but the premiums can vary widely by plan. (If you are enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan that includes Part D coverage, part of the premium goes toward prescription drugs.)

If your Part D plan charges an annual deductible, that means you have to pay full price for your medicines until you’ve met that threshold. The federal government sets the standard deductible every year; for 2019, a plan can’t impose an annual deductible higher than $415. But just like with premiums, deductible amounts vary by plan; some don’t impose any deductible.

Finally, many Medicare beneficiaries with high drug bills are subject to a coverage gap, commonly referred to as the “donut hole.” Up until now, these beneficiaries have had to pay a higher percentage of their drug costs while in the donut hole. The donut hole originally was scheduled to close in 2020 as part of the Affordable Care Act but Congress passed a law this year that closes that gap for brand-name drugs in 2019. Next year, once you incur $3,820 in drug costs, you’ll pay 25 percent of your brand-name and 37 percent of your generic prescription drug costs. Once your out-of-pocket costs reach $5,100, Part D’s catastrophic coverage kicks in and for the rest of the year you’ll pay no more than 5 percent of your drug costs.

What if I can’t afford a Part D plan?

Medicare has an Extra Help program that may pay some or all of your prescription costs, depending on your income and other financial resources. You might also be eligible for an assistance program in your state. Your State Health Insurance Program or Medicaid office can provide more details on those programs. In addition, some drug manufacturers offer discounts on their medications and have information about them on their websites.

How do I decide which Part D plan is best for me?

You’ll want to use the government’s Medicare Plan Finder. This online tool allows you to compare Part D plans available in your zip code that cover your prescriptions — and review each plan’s costs, including premiums and cost-sharing. The tool also shows which pharmacies in your area participate in the various plans.

You also can peruse the Star Ratings for Part D prescription drug (and Medicare Advantage) plans. This is the system CMS uses to measure the quality of the plans, from gauging customer service and member complaints to pricing and array of services offered.

How do I get Part D coverage?

You can sign up on the Medicare Plan Finder for a stand-alone Part D plan sold by insurance companies. These plans are used only in conjunction with Original Medicare. (Or you can enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan — an all-inclusive plan that may cover prescription drugs in addition to hospital care and doctor visits.)

What if I decide I don’t like my Part D plan?

Each year during Medicare open enrollment – usually from October to December – you can change your Part D plan.

Medicare officials and experts strongly suggest that even if you are happy with your current plan that you check out your options during each open enrollment period. Plans routinely change premiums, deductibles, cost-sharing and the prescription drugs that they cover. You might find that a different plan is better suited to your current health care needs.

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