Medicare part D, the prescription-drug benefit begun in 2006, provides government-subsidized coverage of prescription drugs through private insurers. The benefit is available through drug-only plans or health plans that cover medical care as well as drugs. Like most private insurance, these plans usually charge premiums, deductibles and co-payments.

Each year, drug-benefit enrollees have the option of changing plans during a six-week open-enrollment period that begins mid-November. In previous years, most people have chosen to stay put. But seniors might benefit by shopping around because plans often change their premiums, deductibles and other cost-sharing.

Here are some tips on how to choose a drug plan that is best for you:

Don’t just look at premiums. Beneficiaries also should look at factors such as deductibles, co-payments and whether their favorite pharmacy is affiliated with the plan. In particular, seniors should look at the list of drugs a plan covers and what their cost-sharing will be under each plan. Where your medications fall on a plan’s drug list, for example, can make a big difference on your bottom line. Each plan has various “tiers” of drug types — such as generics, preferred brand-name drugs, nonpreferred brand-name drugs or specialty drugs — with the lower tiers requiring smaller co-payments.

Navigate the coverage gap. There is a gap in coverage in Medicare’s drug plans known as the “doughnut hole,” and in 2009 it begins after seniors and their drug plans have spent $2,700. Beneficiaries then must bear all costs until their out-of-pocket expenses reach $4,350. After that, the plan covers most drug costs for the rest of the year. Plans often charge higher premiums in return for covering drugs during the gap, but consumers should weigh whether the extra cost is worth the extra coverage. Seniors also can talk to doctors about cheaper alternatives to the drugs they are taking, such as generics, other brand-name drugs or older versions of drugs that may treat their conditions just as well.

Go online, get help. The online Plan Finder tool on the Web site is indispensable for choosing a drug plan, and seniors who aren’t used to going online could turn to family, friends or advocates for help or call 1-800-Medicare. Helpful tutorials are also available from the Medicare Rights Center.

Once online, you can research what drugs treat your conditions at their local libraries, or tap into online tools such as Consumer Union’s Best Buy Drugs. You can seek free, one-on-one help from counselors at your state’s Health Insurance Assistance Program. You can also go to a local agency on aging, which you can find through the government’s Web site.

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