BRADENTON — Medicare enrollment for 2009 health plans begins tomorrow and continues through Dec. 31. Medicare experts advise seniors to do their homework before choosing or changing plans. “Everybody on Medicare has to check their prescription plan because most of those plans will have changes,” said Gudrun Bennett, coordinator of the local SHINE (Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders) Program, a free, volunteer-based health insurance counseling program offered through the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. Bennett is one of several local volunteer counselors trained to help seniors navigate the complex and often confusing plans offered through Medicare, Medicaid, prescription assistance programs and long-term care planning and insurance options. SHINE volunteers are trained to empower Medicare recipients so they can make the informed choices to meet their needs. Because Medicare Part D drug plans come up for renewal each year, seniors need to make sure their current plan still meets their needs, Bennett said.“Part D plans can change drastically from one year to the next,” Bennett said. “Plans premiums often go up.” An analysis Kaiser Family Foundation revealed 2009 PDP premiums vary widely, with higher-premium plans typically offering enhanced benefits. Across all 50 states and D.C., Part D premiums range from $10.30 to $136.80 per month. Premiums for Part D plans available in Florida range from $16.70 to $111.80. Overall, only 22 percent of plans are priced below $30 per month in 2009 (compared to 40 percent in 2008), while nearly the same share of plans (23 percent) have premiums of $70 or more (versus 11 percent in 2008), the analysis shows. If Plan D enrollees do not switch plans between 2008 and 2009, the average monthly premium will increase by $7.40 per month, from $29.89 in 2008 to $37.29 in 2009. This represents a 25 percent increase, the Kaiser report said. Formularies or the lists of drugs covered under the plans can also change, warned Bennett. Those formularies can be even more confusing because many classify drugs in tiers, with co-pays rising as the tiers rise. The choice becomes even more confusing, given the wide choice of plans that can vary significantly in cost, Bennett said. Manatee residents have access to 54 prescription drug plans, 43 Medicare Health plans and 18 Medicare special needs plans, according to the Medicare Web-site at www.medicare.gov.During the Nov. 15- Dec. 31 enrollment period, Medicare recipients can stay or switch plans for 2009. New coverage and costs begin Jan. 1. Bennett recommends seniors do their homework. Health and financial changes during the past year need to be considered. The Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services advises seniors to look at the cost, coverage, quality and convenience of the plan and then compare those factors with other available coverage options to see if another plan better meets your needs. Many avenues of help are available said Bennett: - Seniors can call the Elder Helpline at (800) 963-5337 to request an appointment with a SHINE volunteer at sites within Manatee County or a phone appointment. Because of the high volume of calls during the enrollment period, callers will be asked to leave their names and phone numbers. A SHINE volunteer will return the call within 72 hours to answer to set up an appointment at the nearest SHINE counseling site, says Robin Watt, SHINE coordinator. SHINE volunteers can help Medicare recipients compare plans. Visit the new site at www.floridashine.org for more information on the SHINE program. - Log on to www.medicare.gov and click on Plans in Your Area for information on all Medicare plans available in Manatee County. The Medicare Web site also includes an interactive online tool you can use to determine which plan is best for you. - Visit Benefits Check Up at www.benefitscheckup.org, a service of the National Council on Aging which provides free, confidential, personalized report on benefits eligibility for individuals. Also includes Benefits Check Up RX, a personalized report on prescription assistance programs to which you may be entitled. - The National Clearinghouse for Long-Term Care Information at www.LongTermCare.gov a Web site of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides information and resources to help seniors and caregivers plan for long-term care needs. Bennett recommends visiting your local pharmacy and asking for help. Many chain drug stores will help seniors determine which plan works best for them given their health and financial needs.Donna Wright, health and social services report, can be reached at 745-7049.