But the state's 700,000 plan participants are still advised to comparison shop when enrollment period begins Oct. 15.
The 700,000 Minnesotans with prescription drug coverage through Medicare can expect generally stable premiums for 2012, according to new data released by the federal government.
But the averages mask big differences from one insurance plan to another -- and with open enrollment starting Oct. 15, state officials are urging beneficiaries to shop carefully.
In Minnesota, each of the 60 competing private insurance plans will change, some dramatically.
For instance, the premium for one CVS Caremark Medicare Advantage plan will drop 15 percent next year, while another will rise 15 percent.
Drug prices themselves also will change. Among the 33 drug-only plans, held by about 270,000 Minnesotans, the average out-of-pocket cost to buy six commonly prescribed drugs will be $3,590 next year. But the range will be huge -- the least expensive at $2,383 under the Humana Enhanced plan, the costliest at $6,323 with the United American Select plan.
Similarly, annual drug costs under the 27 Medicare Advantage plans (which combine drug coverage with medical benefits), held by 250,000 Minnesotans, show an average of $3,330 but range from $2,175 to $6,250.
There also are 14 "special-needs" plans for beneficiaries with chronic diseases or low-income people on Medicaid. About 170,000 other Minnesotans on Medicare are covered by former employer or military drug plans.
To help beneficiaries prepare for open enrollment, detailed information about the drug plans became available over the weekend on the www.medicare.gov website. An online tool there now allows people to compare plan costs and drug coverage.
Despite benefit, few switch
During open enrollment, which ends Dec. 7, any beneficiary may switch plans.
Since the Medicare-supervised drug benefit began in 2006, however, most of the 40 million Americans on a drug plan have not compared or switched plans, despite several studies showing that more than one-fourth of them could do better.
"You can't tell just how good your plan is just by looking at the premiums," said Jean Wood, executive director of the Minnesota Board on Aging. "Everything is changing."
Annual costs for 2012 include an expanding price break for beneficiaries who fall into the Medicare Part D "doughnut hole" -- the gap in coverage after out-of-pocket spending rises to between $2,930 and $4,700. The 2010 federal health overhaul requires drug plans in 2012 to give a 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs and 14 percent discount on generics for beneficiaries in the gap.
In addition to using the online comparison tool, Minnesotans may call the state-sponsored Senior LinkAge Line (1-800-333-2433), an advice and referral service that will compare the drug plans and help beneficiaries choose the best. During last year's open enrollment, the service fielded about 35,000 Medicare calls.
Computer users also can chat online with LinkAge Line counselors about Medicare choices at www.minnesotahelp.info.
The open-enrollment period always is the busy season for the LinkAge Line, at times with long waits to reach a counselor. Wait times could increase this year because the service on Monday also began offering mandatory phone counseling to Minnesotans before they move into assisted-living apartments. At times early in the week, the wait was at least 30 minutes.
Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253