Closing the Gap Strategies for Coping with Medicare’s Doughnut Hole

Shawn Southard, our in-house Medicare specialist, joined us on our latest podcast to discuss Medicare’s Doughnut Hole. If you don’t know what this means or how it relates to you, don’t worry – we’ll explain everything.

What is Medicare’s Doughnut Hole?

A doughnut hole is part of Medicare prescription drug plans. It is found in either standalone Medicare Part D plans or Part D plans that are bundled within Medicare Advantage plans. The doughnut hole is a temporary limit on what the plan will pay for the cost of the drugs. Technically, the doughnut hole the “coverage gap” stage of Part D plans.

What is Part D?

Medicare started in 1966, and up until 2003, there was no prescription coverage until Congress passed the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act. Basically, the Act went into effect in 2006 to help beneficiaries cover the cost of prescription drugs.

As part of the Act, there is a penalty if you don’t enroll in a prescription drug plan when you turn 65 or retire.

There is a 1% penalty for every month that you didn’t enroll when you were supposed to be enrolled. The penalty is monthly for as long as you are enrolled in a Part D plan, which could be the rest of your life. For example, if you don’t enroll in a Part D drug plan for 2 years (when you were first eligible to enroll), you will have a 20% Part D late enrollment penalty. This penalty is monthly and will be in effect for as long as you are enrolled in a Part D plan. The 24% late enrollment penalty is based on the national average Part D premium, which in 2024, is $34.70. This penalty is added to your drug plan premium automatically by Medicare. 

Even if you don’t take prescription drugs, be sure to enroll in a Part D prescription drug plan to avoid the late enrollment penalty. 

Medicare Part D plans have 4 stages. Theses stages are the same for standalone Part D plans and Part D plans that are bundled into Medicare Advantage prescription drugs plans.

  1. Deductible Stage. If your plan has a deductible, you start here. You are paying 100% of the drug cost up to your deductible amount. The maximum for Part D plans in 2024, is $545. Depending upon your zip code there could be several Part D plans that do not have a deductible.
  2. Initial coverage Stage. The initial coverage stage is reached when your deductible has been met or if your plan does not have a deductible. In this stage, you pay roughly 25% of the cost with co-pays and co-insurance. The co-pay depends on one of the five tiers in the drug plan. Tier 1, the lowest tier, are drugs that are preferred generics that either have zero ($0) or a co-pay of a few dollars. Depending on your medications and their tier, you may be paying more. The initial coverage stage starts when your out-of-pocket costs reach $546 and goes to $5,030. Note: if your plan does not have a deductible, you start at the initial coverage page. You reach the doughnut hole stage after reaching the $5,030 out- of-pocket limit.
  3. Coverage gap stage. This is the “doughnut hole”. It is reached when out-of-pocket drug costs exceed $5,031 and goes to $8,000. In this doughnut hole stage, for brand name drugs that you take, you’ll pay no more that 25% of drug costs and the drug manufacturer pays 70% of the drug costs.  This 95% (25% paid by you and 95% paid by the drug manufacturer) goes towards getting you out of the doughnut hole quicker. 95 % is True Out Of Pocket (TrOOP). If you are doughnut hole stage and taking generic drugs, you pay no more than 25% of the drug costs. NOTE: only the amount you pay (25%) goes towards TrOOP.
  4. Catastrophic Stage. This is the doughnut hole exit point. This state is reached when you have pay $8,000 out of pocket for your drugs. Moving forward, you pay $0 toward any additional prescription-related expenses. But, at the end of the plan year, out of pocket costs reset back to zero. Restarting at Stage 1 starts at the beginning of the year.

If you’re in Medicare’s doughnut hole for one year, and your drug regimen stays the same, there is a strong possibility you will be in the doughnut hole next year.

Inflation Reduction Act

Under the Inflation Reduction Act, there is some very promising news. One of the changes in 2023 was that you paid just 5% when you hit the catastrophic phase and now you pay 0% in 2024. In 2025, the next stage of the Inflation Reduction Act, it   will put a cap on TrOOP at $2,000.

If the Act remains as it is, in 2025, people will reach the catastrophic phase when they spend $2,000 out of pocket. For Medicare Beneficiaries who reach the doughnut hole each year, this is a significant change that will provide immense financial relief.

In 2026, Medicare will begin negotiating the prices of 10 brand-name drugs downward. While manufacturers are fighting back against this, many Federal judges are siding with Medicare.

Are There Other Strategies to Navigate Medicare’s Doughnut Hole?

Yes, there are generics that your doctor may be able to offer you. Generics will help you save on costs. Doctors may be able to work with you to find drug alternatives that can push your costs down.

If you’re really struggling economically, you may be able to qualify for:

  • Extra help
  • Low-income subsidies

Anyone on these programs will never go into the doughnut hole and will have their costs significantly reduced.

If you want to talk to Shawn about your Medicare, call our office at (919) 787-8866.