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Seniors urged to shop for best Medicare drug plan

By Bob LaMendola

McClatchy Newspapers

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Health advocates and officials expressed concerns that seniors might be complacent or weary about shopping for Medicare prescription drug benefits, as the nation today begins a six-week sprint to sign up for 2007 coverage.

Facing so many options, retirees and disabled people may simply stay with their present Medicare drug plan, even though experts advise studying the options because most plans are changing costs and coverage.

"Why would I shop around?" said Minnie Morse, a Medicare HMO member attending a health fair in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday. "Medicare is confusing. They’re making people crazy now with all these choices. The HMO is very simple."

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Medicare recipients have until Dec. 31 to enroll in one of the managed care plans offering drug coverage.

Recipients need to compare their choices to find out that at least 18 drug plans are raising premiums, a dozen HMOs will begin charging premiums and most plans are raising co-payments. More drug plans are covering generic drugs in the "doughnut hole" — a gap in the program where the recipient pays their entire drug costs — but fewer plans are covering brand-name drugs in the gap.

Medicare’s acting administrator, Leslie Norwalk, also urged recipients to compare. On an Internet conference Tuesday, Norwalk said Medicare phone counselors would be doing a disservice if they simply advised callers to stick with an existing plan they like.

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