Washington — Seniors who complained this year about a dizzying array of choices for a Medicare drug plan may find themselves even dizzier when they shop around for next year.
Federal officials announced Friday that 17 companies have been approved to provide Medicare drug coverage nationally. This year, there were nine.
As a result, beneficiaries in Oklahoma, for example, will have 57 stand-alone plans to select from, compared with 42 this year. Beneficiaries in North Carolina will have 51 stand-alone plans to select from, compared with 38 this year.
New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have more than 60 plans each, while Kansas has more than 50.
In addition, beneficiaries can get coverage through one of dozens of Medicare Advantage plans. Such plans offer protection from other medical expenses, such as a visit to the doctor's office.
Many of the new plans are offering coverage that seniors have been asking for, such as no deductible or coverage in the so-called "doughnut hole," said Mark McClellan, the Bush administration's point man on Medicare. The doughnut hole is the gap created at the point when beneficiaries have to pick up all of their drug costs.
"The new options that are available are primarily options that provide enhanced coverage," McClellan said. "The number of variations for basic coverage have gone down significantly."
Critics of the program said the benefit is getting more complicated, not easier.
"The incredible confusion that persisted throughout this year is about to get considerably worse," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, an advocacy group. "This is because there will be quite a few more plans to choose from, they will all be different from each other, and seniors will have a much shorter time period to make decisions about enrollment."
Beginning Nov. 15, seniors have until the end of the year to enroll in a drug plan. During the program's start-up, they had about six months to enroll.
McClellan's comments came as the Department of Health and Human Services formally announced Friday which plans Medicare beneficiaries will have available to them during the benefit's second year. The officials said the monthly premium that beneficiaries pay next year will average $24 - about the same as in 2006.
Seniors happy with their drug coverage this year - and surveys indicate that most are - won't have to do any shopping if they want to stay with their plan, said HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt.