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Highlights

To help defray out-of-pocket prescription drug costs for limited or low-income Medicare beneficiaries, the Medicare Part D outpatient prescription drug program offers a low-income subsidy (LIS) for eligible beneficiaries. In 2010, about 9.4 million beneficiaries received the LIS--about 40 percent of the approximately 23 million Medicare Part D beneficiaries in that year. Most of the LIS beneficiaries received the full LIS, thus paying no premiums or deductibles as long as they enrolled in so-called "benchmark" stand-alone prescription drug plans (PDP). Benchmark PDPs are those plans with premiums at or below a specified benchmark for a given geographic region, calculated by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that administers the Medicare program. Full LIS beneficiaries may also enroll in other Part D plans--either nonbenchmark PDPs or Medicare Advantage prescription drug plans (MAPD)-- but must pay any difference between the premium of the plan in which they choose to enroll and the benchmark for their region. Because plan premiums can change from year to year and because CMS recalculates the premium benchmarks annually, some PDPs may be benchmark PDPs in one year and not in the following year. In these instances, CMS is required to randomly reassign those LIS beneficiaries who are in plans whose premiums will no longer be at or below the new benchmark the following year into PDPs with premiums that will be at or below the benchmark. Beneficiaries subject to random reassignment can choose to either stay in their current plan or enroll in a new plan prior to being randomly reassigned by CMS, but if they choose either option, and that plan's premium is higher than the new benchmark, they are responsible for paying any premiums above the new benchmark. From 2007--the first year LIS beneficiaries could be randomly reassigned--through 2010, an average of almost 1.3 million LIS beneficiaries has been randomly reassigned into new PDPs each year. Questions have been raised by Medicare beneficiary advisors and others about the benefits of available benchmark PDPs, and some suggest that the random reassignment process may create challenges for affected LIS beneficiaries. For example, according to some advisors, random reassignment may impact LIS beneficiaries' drug coverage. Specifically, beneficiaries may be randomly reassigned by CMS into benchmark PDPs that do not cover the drugs they are taking, requiring them to consult with a medical provider to prescribe a therapeutically equivalent alternate drug. Similarly, they may be randomly reassigned by CMS into benchmark PDPs that impose more or different utilization management (UM) requirements-- such as prior authorization requirements, quantity limits, or step therapy--on certain drugs they are currently taking, thus also requiring the intervention of a medical provider. In addition, there are concerns that random reassignment may lead to changes in pharmacies impacted LIS beneficiaries have access to, which may further impact drug utilization. Congress asked us to examine the features of benchmark PDPs and explore how the random reassignment process may affect beneficiaries' drug utilization. In this report, we describe: 1. how drug coverage and access to pharmacies compared between benchmark and nonbenchmark PDPs from 2007 through 2010; and 2. how changes in drug and pharmacy utilization compared between randomly reassigned and other LIS beneficiaries who were not randomly reassigned from 2007 to 2008.

Full Report