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Medicare drug doughnut hole to shrink

WASHINGTON -- Medicare's prescription coverage gap is getting noticeably smaller and easier to manage this year for millions of older and disabled people with high drug costs.

The "doughnut hole," an anxiety-inducing catch in an otherwise popular benefit, will shrink about 40 percent for those unlucky enough to land in it, according to new Medicare figures provided in response to a request from The Associated Press.

The average beneficiary who falls into the coverage gap would have spent $1,504 this year on prescriptions.

But thanks to discounts and other provisions in President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law, that cost fell to $901, according to Medicare's Office of the Actuary, which handles economic estimates.

A 50 percent discount that the law secured from pharmaceutical companies on brand name drugs yielded an average savings of $581. Medicare also picked up more of the cost of generic drugs, saving an additional $22.

The estimates are averages, so some Medicare recipients may do worse and others better. Also, it's still unclear whether the discounts will start to overcome seniors' deep unease about the law.

More than 2 million beneficiaries already have gotten some help, discounts that have gone largely to middle-class seniors, because the poor are covered in the gap at taxpayer expense.

Medicare covers about 47 million older and disabled people, and about 9 in 10 have some kind of prescription plan. Most rely on the drug benefit, also known as Part D, which is delivered through private insurance plans.

Beneficiaries have until Dec. 7 to change their drug plans for 2012. Consumer advocates recommend that seniors check their coverage during open enrollment to see whether their current choice remains the best for next year.

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