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In Health Care, Competition Works

Seniors have only a short time left to take advantage of the opportunity to switch plans with their Medicare prescription drug benefit. The enrollment period ends December 31, and it is wise for everyone enrolled in the program to check their options and make sure they're in the best and most affordable plan for them. So if you're over the age of 65 and haven't done so already, head to to check your options.

There, using Medicare's Plan Finder, you can compare plans based on price, drug coverage, and out-of-pocket expenses. You can also use the Plan Finder to compare the cost of filling a prescription at your local pharmacy versus a mail-order drug store.

You may want to check out one of the Medicare Advantage plans. These plans offer a full range of health services - and many of them include prescription drug coverage at no extra cost.

If you don't have web access, you can always call 1-800-Medicare and speak with a customer service representative. Over the phone, a Medicare representative can talk you through your choices.

The Medicare drug benefit offers such a wide range of choices because of its design. Instead of the one-size-fits-all model typical of government health insurance, Medicare beneficiaries typically can choose from among 20 or more plans in their regions, including Medicare Advantage plans that integrate drug and medical coverage into one health plan.

This forces insurers to compete - and results in generous benefits at affordable prices. Even though lawmakers originally estimated that seniors would pay an average monthly premium of more than $44 in 2009, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates the average monthly premium next year for the standard plan will be just $28.

The prices of some of the most popular plans have increased this year, though, so it's in seniors' best interest to see if they can find a better deal. In virtually every region, seniors can find a less expensive drug plan for 2009. But they have only until the end of December to make any changes, or they will be automatically reenrolled in their current plan. So if you're a senior, be sure to check your options before time runs out.

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