With the start of open enrollment for Medicare Part D prescription drug plans, pharmacy retailers are again positioning themselves as a destination for senior citizens seeking assistance, particularly regarding changes brought by health care reform.

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Retail News Breaks

Chain drug retailers offer Medicare Part D counsel

November 15th, 2010

NEW YORK – With the start of open enrollment for Medicare Part D prescription drug plans, pharmacy retailers are again positioning themselves as a destination for senior citizens seeking assistance, particularly regarding changes brought by health care reform.

Walgreen Co., Rite Aid Corp. and CVS Caremark Corp. announced that their pharmacists are readily available to advise seniors in choosing a Part D plan. Meanwhile, Walmart and health insurer Humana have set up kiosks in thousands of the discount giant's stores for customers seeking information about their new co-branded Part D plan, which on Monday had its first in-store enrollee.

Seniors have until Dec. 31 to decide their Medicare Part D coverage for 2011. With the enactment of the health care reform law, many current Medicare prescription drug plans won't be available next year. Walgreens reported that according to research firm Avalere Health, about 3 million Medicare beneficiaries will need to choose another plan for 2011.

On the plus side for seniors, another change with health care reform will save them money when they reach their Part D coverage gap, or "doughnut hole." Starting Jan. 1, drug manufacturers will provide a 50% discount on brand-name drugs, and the government will provide a 7% discount on generic drugs for those who fall into the doughnut hole. That comes in addition to the $250 rebate, effective this year, for beneficiaries who reach the coverage gap.

The federal government estimates that the average Medicare Part D beneficiary who reaches the doughnut hole next year will save $500 because of the new discounts. Under health care reform, the Medicare Part D coverage gap will be phased out by 2020.

To help seniors, Walgreens on Monday said its pharmacists will be offering a free Part D plan comparison report. The report is personalized to show plan costs based on the medications that an individual is taking, helping Medicare beneficiaries and caregivers determine how much can be saved under different plans. Also, the comparison report that makes it easier for beneficiaries and caregivers to select a plan for the first time or decide if their current plan is still the best fit for their needs.

"This year, there are substantial savings available to beneficiaries in Medicare Part D, so it's important they learn as much as possible about their options to realize these benefits," Richard Ashworth, vice president of pharmacy operations at Walgreens, said in a statement. "Our pharmacists are among the most trusted and accessible sources for help with making an informed plan choice. They can't make the decision for you, but they can certainly be a resource to help you understand your options."

The personalized report, available in minutes at any Walgreens store or online at walgreens.com/medicare, can detail each Part D plan's estimated annual costs, including monthly premiums, branded and generic co-pays and coverage through the doughnut hole.

"Our free report simplifies the decision-making process by providing information tailored for each individual in a way that makes it easy to compare Medicare Part D plans," added Ashworth. "Even if there have not been changes to their current plan, seniors need to consider how their needs may have evolved over the year. In some cases, people have not re-evaluated their plan costs since they enrolled four years ago, even though their medications may have changed."

Walgreens pharmacies also will be distributing a free Medicare booklet from UnitedHealthcare, titled "Medicare Made Clear," that explains Parts A, B, C and D of Medicare as well as the enrollment procedures.

Late last week, Rite Aid said its pharmacists nationwide are ready to help patients and caregivers compare Medicare Part D plans and choose the best option based on their medication needs.

Patients new to the Part D benefit as well as those currently enrolled in a plan who are reviewing their selection can receive counseling from any Rite Aid pharmacist, according to the drug store chain. Patients can also get a personalized printed report featuring the three lowest-cost plans based on their current prescriptions filled at Rite Aid pharmacies.

Free resources available to seniors and their caregivers at all Rite Aid stores and riteaid.com include a free "Medicare Part D for Seniors" guide that gives a quick lesson on the drug benefit, explains why evaluation of plans is necessary, and provides six simple steps to help pick the best plan as well as a directory of resources. There's also the Medicare Advisor, a free online tool that Rite Aid said brings "push-button simplicity" to finding and choosing the right Medicare prescription drug plan, including a detailed comparison of all available local plans with drug prices, deductibles and monthly premiums so patients can compare plans side by side.

Rite Aid noted that seniors should submit their application by Dec. 8 or sooner to ensure benefits will start Jan. 1.

And to help seniors the lowest cost plan that meets their needs, CVS/pharmacy said it's offering resources in stores and online.

CVS pharmacists are available throughout the open enrollment period to provide patients a list of their current medications and offer plan comparisons using the Medicare Plan Finder Tool, according to CVS Caremark. Seniors also can access the 2011 Medicare Plan Finder at CVS.com/medicare to compare plans, and the site lists helpful information and answers to questions about Part D plans.

"There are important decisions to be made during Medicare Part D enrollment that can affect one's health care costs in the coming year," Mitch Betses, vice president of retail pharmacy operations for CVS/pharmacy, said in a statement. "Caregivers can play a big role in helping their loved ones make the right choices, and CVS/pharmacy has the tools to help simplify the process."

On Monday, Walmart announced that Mary Lee Reinscheld became the first Medicare beneficiary to sign up for the new Humana Walmart-Preferred Rx Plan at one of the retailer's discount stores.

Reinscheld enrolled in the plan, which was announced in early October, at a Humana informational kiosk inside a Walmart store in Louisville, Ky. The companies said the kiosks, many staffed by Humana representatives, are available in about 3,000 Walmart stores nationwide to help people learn more about the co-branded Medicare Part D plan and find out how to enroll.

The new plan features one nationwide monthly plan premium of $14.80. Walmart and Humana reported that according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Humana Walmart-Preferred Rx Plan offers the lowest monthly nationwide premium for a stand-alone Part D plan in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The companies said the plan can save a typical member an estimated average of more than $450 in 2011 through low premiums, co-payments and cost shares.

Almost 18 million Americans now rely on a stand-alone Part D plan for their prescription drug needs, and that number stands to hit 26 million by 2015, according to Walmart and Humana. Seniors account for a third of all prescriptions in the United States, and on average, people enrolled in stand-alone Part D plans fill 42 prescriptions per year.

"As the world's largest retailer, Walmart is uniquely positioned to help drive down the costs associated with prescription medications," John Agwunobi, M.D., president of Walmart's Health and Wellness division, said in a statement. "Our participation in this plan is another example of Walmart's ongoing commitment to helping customers save money and live better, especially when it comes to providing affordable health care."

*Editor's Note: Article updated with CVS information on Nov. 17.

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