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Have you enrolled in your drug plan yet?

The current calendar year won't be the only thing ticking away as midnight approaches on New Year's Eve.

So will the open enrollment period for the 2008 Medicare Part D drug benefit.

If you haven't heard about this program, you're not alone.

As a recently published Kaiser Family Foundation report revealed, knowledge about the Part D benefit "has not increased appreciably among most participants," and many Americans still lack a clear understanding of how the Part D program works.

What it is and when you can enroll
Medicare Part D offers no single "one-size-fits-all" prescription drug plan of its own. Instead, the federal government has opted to subsidize private insurers so that they, in turn, could offer this optional prescription drug coverage to Medicare beneficiaries. These private insurance plans must meet or exceed the drug benefit standard established by the federal government in the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003, and they potentially lower prescription drug costs for most Medicare beneficiaries.

The good news is that everyone on Medicare is eligible to receive Part D prescription drug coverage. The bad news is, in order to obtain and benefit from it, it's up to beneficiaries to take the initiative and select a prescription drug plan on their own and then to review that coverage annually to make sure that it remains the best option for their specific needs. That's because premiums, deductibles, co-pays and the drugs covered in the plans change from year to year.

The ABCs of Medicare Part D

The annual open enrollment period runs from Nov. 15 to Dec. 31, and it's generally during this brief time frame that people can enroll in a new first-time plan or change an existing plan if they want Medicare Part D coverage in place as of Jan. 1, 2008.

You can get Medicare prescription drug coverage in one of two ways. You can either join a stand-alone Medicare Prescription Drug Plan, or you can join a more comprehensive Medicare Advantage Plan that's similar to an HMO or PPO and get all of your Medicare coverage (Part A and Part B), including prescription drugs (Part D), from that single provider.

When you can join or change a Medicare drug plan
You can join, switch, or drop a plan:
    1. When you first become eligible for Medicare (in a time frame of three months before you turn age 65 to three months after the month you turn age 65).
    2. If you get Medicare due to a disability, you can join during the three months before to three months after your 25th month of cash disability payments.
    3. From Nov. 15 to Dec. 31 of each year. Your coverage will begin on Jan. 1 of the following year.
    4. At any time if you qualify for "extra help." This includes people who have Medicare and Medicaid, who belong to a Medicare Savings Program, who get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits (but not Medicaid) and those who apply and qualify.
In certain situations, you may also be able to join, switch, or drop Medicare drug plans at other times (for example, if you move out of the service area or live in an institution).
Next: What does it cost?
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