U.S. says Medicare drug plan costs steady in 2011

* Part D plans to cost enrollees $1 more on average

* Drug plan premiums to average $30 in 2011 vs. $29 now

* Companies who sell Part D plans see flat costs – CMS

WASHINGTON, Aug 18 (BestGrowthStock) – U.S. health officials said
on Wednesday they expect Medicare patients enrolled in the
federal health insurance program’s prescription drug benefit to
see their premium costs remain flat next year.

The voluntary benefit, know as Part D, pays for medicines
for seniors and disabled Medicare patients who have signed up
for separate drug insurance plans. The plans cover medicines
until they hit the so-called “doughnut hole,” a temporary gap
in which patients must assume all costs.

In 2011, Medicare Part D beneficiaries will pay $30 a month
in premiums on average compared with $29 on average in 2010,
the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said
after weighing company’s bids.

The steady rates are large part because there “haven’t been
significant changes in plan costs,” said Paul Spitalnic of
CMS’s Office of the Actuary.

Companies such as Aetna Inc (AET.N: ), CVS Caremark Corp
(CVS.N: ) and Humana Inc (HUM.N: ) sell the Part D plans, but are
overseen by CMS.

About 27 million people are currently enrolled in Part D
supplemental insurance plans, according to CMS, and 29 million
are expected to sign up in 2011.

Right now, Part D plans help cover patients’ prescriptions
until they reach a certain limit. Patients pay out of pocket
for all their medicines until they reach another limit —
$4,550 in 2010 — and the benefit kicks in again.

The new healthcare law enacted in late March aims to shrink
the doughnut hole gradually through drugmaker discounts and
federal subsidies by 2020. This year, Part D enrollees who
reached the doughnut hole also received a $250 rebate under the
law. So far, 750,000 people have received such checks, CMS
Administrator Don Berwick told reporters.

Part D has been controversial ever since U.S. lawmakers
passed it in 2003 under a Republican-led Congress and President
George W. Bush.

While the program has earned support for helping elderly
patients afford critical medicines, it has also weathered some
criticism for not being properly funded, resulting in the
coverage gap and an increase in the nation’s debt.

This year, Medicare is expected to spend 11 percent, or
roughly $55 billion, of its $504 billion in benefit payments on
Part D, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit
health research group.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; editing by Andre Grenon)

U.S. says Medicare drug plan costs steady in 2011