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How do I choose between a stand-alone Medicare Part D prescription drug plan (PDP) and a Medicare Advantage plan that includes prescription drug coverage (MAPD)

Category: Choosing a Medicare Plan
Updated: Jul, 08 2022


If you are eligible for Medicare and you don't have drug coverage through your employer, VA, or other source, additional prescription drug coverage is available to you through either:

(1) a stand-alone Medicare Part D prescription drug plan (PDP) or

(2) a Medicare Advantage plan that includes prescription drug coverage (MAPD).

. . . And with both alternatives you would choose the specific drug plan that provides the most economic drug coverage.

So what is the difference?  A Medicare Part D plan (PDP) only provides drug coverage.  A Medicare Advantage (MAPD) plan provides Medicare Part D drug coverage - and also provides Medicare Part A (hospitalization and in-patient) coverage and Medicare Part B (doctor and out-patient) coverage and probably will include additional healthcare and non-healthcare benefits.

Choosing between a PDP and MAPD

(1)  Consider choosing a PDP if . . .
  • you only want prescription drug coverage and wish to use Original Medicare for your Medicare Part A and Medicare Part B - or you have some other form of healthcare coverage such as VA or TRICARE health coverage - choose a PDP.

  • you have a Medicare Supplement, you will want to choose a PDP for your Medicare drug coverage. You cannot use a Medicare Supplement with a Medicare Advantage plan.

  • you are enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan MSA (Medicare Savings Account) or PFFS (Private fee-for-service) plan that does not provide drug coverage (MA instead of MAPD), you will want to join a Medicare PDP to get drug coverage.

  • there are no Medicare Advantage plans in your county (or ZIP Code region) (or no acceptable Medicare Advantage plans), you will want to join a PDP for drug coverage.
(2)  Consider choosing a MAPD if you . . .
  • need both drug coverage and comprehensive Medicare coverage with a maximum out-of-pocket spending limit (MOOP), then consider choosing a MAPD available in your area.

  • wish to have the lowest-costing premium and healthcare coverage (or healthcare is of no concern to you), you may wish to see if a $0 premium MAPD is available in your area.  Some MAPDs are also available that not only have a $0 premium per month, but also pay you back a portion of your Medicare Part B premium - these "give back" or "dividend" MAPD plans are not available everywhere in the country, but are gaining in popularity especially in areas of high Medicare beneficiary population (such as, Florida, California, New York, Pennsylvania).

  • have a specific chronic condition or financial need, you may wish to consider a Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plan (SNP) where drug coverage and healthcare is tailored to a certain chronic condition (such as Diabetes or ESRD) or personal need (people eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid) or residents of a long term care (LTC) facility.

  • wish to have drug coverage, healthcare coverage, and supplemental benefits such as basic hearing, vision, dental, fitness coverage - and possible non-health related benefits such as transportation or limited meal delivery.
Tip:  Have you had too much information already?

No problem, you can always call a Medicare representative at 1-800-633-4227 (1-800-Medicare) and someone will assist you with your Medicare plan enrollment decision.  You can also telephone a SHIP representative for assistance or speak with a local Medicare advocate - or you can keep reading for more information . . .

What drug coverage do PDPs and MAPDs have in common?
  • Lower-cost prescriptions - A PDP and an MAPD both provide Medicare drug coverage for a certain group of out-patient prescription drugs where you should pay less for your prescriptions - and avoid the late-enrollment premium penalty should you ever wish to have drug coverage in the future.

  • Large list of covered drugs - Both Medicare drug plans have a formulary or drug list that shows what brand and generic prescriptions are covered by the plan (formularies will vary between plans and can have anywhere between 2,000 to 4,000+ drugs).

  • Large network of pharmacies - Both a Medicare PDP and an MAPD have a network of 50,000 to 60,000+ pharmacies where you can use the drug benefit.

  • Cost-sharing for drugs - Both drug plans have different cost-sharing for drugs on different levels or formulary "tiers" (for example, you may have a $30 co-pay for a Tier 3 brand-name drug, a $2 co-pay for a Tier 1 generic drug, and pay 25% of retail for a Tier 4 Specialty Drug)

  • Same rules and procedures - Both plans are governed by similar rules and you can move from one type of plan to another without noticing much change in how your drug plan functions.
Some key differences between PDPs and MAPDs.

As noted, choosing how you receive Medicare drug coverage ultimately depends on your situation and personal preferences - and whether you need only prescription drug coverage or you wish to have prescription drug coverage and additional healthcare coverage.  To help you make a decision, you might want to compare PDP and MAPD plan options based on:
  • Extent of Coverage

    PDP - A stand-alone Medicare Part D prescription drug plan (PDP) covers only out-patient prescription drugs.  A Medicare Part D plan will work together with VA or TRICARE coverage, but will not usually work together with an employer or union healthcare plan that includes drug coverage.

    MAPD - A Medicare Advantage plan with drug coverage (MAPD) includes the same Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage as a PDP - and also includes, at a minimum, the medically-necessary coverage of Original Medicare Part A (in-patient care) and Medicare Part B (out-patient and physician care) and sometimes includes limited dental, hearing, fitness, vision, and other supplemental coverage.  As with a PDP, you, most likely, cannot enroll in an MAPD and still keep your employer health plan.

    As a note,  if you are enrolled in a Medicare Supplement (Medigap policy) and wish to have drug coverage, you can only choose a stand-alone PDP for your drug coverage -  you cannot use a Medicare Advantage plan with a Medicare Supplement.

  • Complexity

    PDP - Stand-alone Medicare Part D plans (PDPs) are simpler than MAPDs - as PDP only provide prescription drug coverage. When choosing a PDP, you will need to ensure that your medications are affordably covered on the plan's formulary - and check to see whether the plan has imposed any Usage Management Restriction on your medications (such as a limit on the quantity you can use in a month or whether your drugs need prior authorization from the plan before providing coverage) - and check that your local pharmacies are included in the prescription drug plan's pharmacy network (and, depending on your plan, be aware that some plans use both "preferred" and "standard" pharmacies in their network where preferred network pharmacies may charge you less for formulary drugs than standard network pharmacies).

    MAPD - If you choose to enroll an MAPD, you will look at the drug coverage the same as for a Medicare Part D PDP:  Are your drugs affordably covered? Are there network pharmacies in your area? Are your local pharmacies preferred or standard network pharmacies - and is there a cost difference between pharmacies?

    However, an MAPD also provides coverage of your Medicare Part A (hospital and in-patient care) and Medicare Part B (doctor and out-patient care), so MAPDs provide broader healthcare coverage beyond a PDP and you need to be prepared to ask questions beyond just drug coverage.

    If you consider an MAPD you will want to know whether your preferred physicians or specialists and hospitals are included within the Medicare Advantage plan's healthcare network.  If you rely on a certain group of healthcare providers, you may find that they are not included in your plan’s network - and you will need to have plan approval (pre-authorization) before visiting a healthcare provider outside of the plan's network - and may pay more for out-of-network services.
  • Cost

    PDP - A stand-alone drug plan will have a monthly premium (around $10 to over $110), may have an initial deductible (you pay the first $400- $500 before your plan begins to pay), and some form of cost-sharing for your drugs ($30 co-pay or 25% of retail drug prices).

    MAPD - just like a PDP, you may have an initial deductible and your plan will have some form of cost-sharing for the formulary drugs, however, your monthly MAPD premium may be lower than a PDP premium.  In many areas across the country, you can join a $0 premium Medicare Advantage plan (if available) that includes drug coverage (MAPD) - and you may find in your area a "give-back" MAPD that has a $0 premium and actually pays you back a portion of your Medicare Part B premium.  In addition, if you have chronic health issues, a Medicare Advantage plan’s Maximum out of Pocket (MOOP) limit may help contain your annual Part A and Part B medical costs (up to around $7,550 in 2022, depending on the plan).

  • Availability and Eligibility

    PDP - To enroll into a Medicare Part D prescription drug plan (PDP), you must have either Medicare Part A and/or Medicare Part B.  Remember: Monthly Medicare Part D premiums are paid in addition to your Medicare Part A (if any) and/or Part B premiums. There are no health-related questions when applying for Medicare Part D coverage (that is, pre-existing health problems are not considered for enrollment).

    You must live in the Medicare Part D plan's Service Area (usually a single state or a group of states).  You can see all Medicare Part D plans in your area by using our PDP Finder: PDP-Finder.com.

    MAPD - To enroll into a Medicare Advantage plan, you must have both Medicare Parts A and B.  Remember:  Monthly Medicare Advantage plan premiums (if any) are also paid in addition to your Medicare A and Medicare Part B premiums.

    Like a PDP, there are no health-related questions when applying for a MAPD (that is, pre-existing health problems are not considered for enrollment) - except for Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plans (SNPs)where you must attest to the "Special Need" required by the plan.  (The 21st Century Cures Act amended the Social Security Act allowing all Medicare-eligible individuals with kidney failure/ESRD to enroll in Medicare Advantage plans beginning January 1, 2021 with the ESRD question being removed from Medicare Advantage plan enrollment applications.)

    You must also live in the Medicare Advantage plan's Service Area (usually a county, partial county, or ZIP Code region).  You can view all of the Medicare Advantage plans in your area using our Medicare Advantage Plan Finder (or MA-Finder.com).

    Medicare Part D drug plans and Medicare Supplements
    Do you only need drug coverage? Do you already have a Medicare Supplement or other Medical insurance? You cannot use a Medicare Advantage plan with a Medicare Supplement.  If you have healthcare through your employer, you probably do not want to enroll in a PDP or an MAPD (or risk losing your employer coverage).

  • Enrollment

    To enroll into either a stand-alone Medicare Part D PDP or a Medicare Advantage plan, you can use:

    - Your IEP - Initial Enrollment Period - the 7-month period surrounding your Medicare eligibility date (such as 65th birthday).

    - The AEP - annual Medicare Open Enrollment Period starting each year on October 15th and continuing through December 7th.

    - The MA-OEP - the Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment Period that starts January 1st and continues through March 31 (only to change or drop a Medicare Advantage plan, not for changing PDPs).

    - an SEP - Special Enrollment Periods - throughout the year you can change

    Once you are ready, you can enroll into a Medicare plan many different ways including through an agent, online, through a SHIP, or by calling a Medicare representative at 1-800-633-4227 (1-800-Medicare).
More on the complexity of Medicare Advantage plans:
  • Although we have only discussed MAPDs, Medicare Advantage plans are available in two general varieties: (1) Medicare Advantage plans with prescription drug coverage (MAPDs) and (2) Medicare Advantage plans without prescription drug coverage (MAs).

    If you want a Medicare Advantage plan and you want Medicare prescription drug coverage, you will usually need to join an MAPD.  In most cases, you are not able to join an MA and then add a stand-alone Medicare Part D plan for your prescription drug coverage (unless you join an MA that is a private-fee for service (PFFS) plan or MSA - with these two types of MAs, you can add a stand-alone Medicare Part D prescription drug plan).

    Medicare Advantage plans can be further defined by how the private insurance carriers choose to implement the Medicare Part A and Medicare Part B coverage.  Some MAPDs/MAs are PPOs (Preferred Provider Organizations) or HMOs (Health Management Organizations) - and still other MAPDs/MAs are set up as PFFS (Private Fee for Service Organizations).  Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plans (SNPs) are also available and require that you have the condition or "need" for which the plan is designed (for instance, a specific chronic condition (like Kidney Failure) or financial status).
For more information, please see:

"What is the difference between a Medicare Advantage plan and a stand-alone Medicare Part D plan?": https://Q1FAQ.com/647.html

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  • Benefits, formulary, pharmacy network, provider network, premium and/or co-payments/co-insurance may change on January 1 of each year. Our PDP-Compare.com and MA-Compare.com provide highlights of annual plan benefit changes.
  • The benefit information provided is a brief summary, not a complete description of benefits. For more information contact the plan.
  • Limitations, copayments, and restrictions may apply.
  • We make every effort to show all available Medicare Part D or Medicare Advantage plans in your service area. However, since our data is provided by Medicare, it is possible that this may not be a complete listing of plans available in your service area. For a complete listing please contact 1-800-MEDICARE (TTY users should call 1-877-486-2048), 24 hours a day/7 days a week or consult www.medicare.gov.
  • When enrolling in a Medicare Advantage plan, you must continue to pay your Medicare Part B premium.
  • Medicare beneficiaries with higher incomes may be required to pay both a Medicare Part B and Medicare Part D Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amount (IRMAA). Read more on IRMAA.
  • Medicare Advantage plans that include prescription drug coverage (MAPDs) are considered Medicare Part D plans and members with higher incomes may be subject to the Medicare Part D Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amount (IRMAA), just as members in stand-alone Part D plans. In certain situations, you can appeal IRMAA.
  • You must be enrolled in both Medicare Part A and Part B to enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan. Members may enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan only during specific times of the year. Contact the Medicare plan for more information.
  • If you are enrolled in a Medicare plan with Part D prescription drug coverage, you may be eligible for financial Extra Help to assist with the payment of your prescription drug premiums and drug purchases. To see if you qualify for Extra Help, call: 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227). TTY users should call 1-877-486-2048, 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week or consult www.medicare.gov; the Social Security Office at 1-800-772-1213 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. TTY users should call, 1-800-325-0778; or your state Medicaid Office.
  • Medicare evaluates plans based on a 5-Star rating system. Star Ratings are calculated each year and may change from one year to the next.
  • A Medicare Advantage Private Fee-for-Service plan (PFFS) is not a Medicare supplement plan. Providers who do not contract with the plan are not required to see you except in an emergency.
  • Disclaimer for Institutional Special Needs Plan (SNP): This plan is available to anyone with Medicare who meets the Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF) level of care and resides in a nursing home.
  • Disclaimer for Dual Eligible (Medicare/Medicaid) Special Needs Plan (SNP): This plan is available to anyone who has both Medical Assistance from the State and Medicare. Premiums, co-pays, co-insurance, and deductibles may vary based on the level of Extra Help you receive. Please contact the plan for further details.
  • Disclaimer for Chronic Condition Special Needs Plan (SNP): This plan is available to anyone with Medicare who has been diagnosed with the plan specific Chronic Condition.
  • Medicare MSA Plans combine a high deductible Medicare Advantage Plan and a trust or custodial savings account (as defined and/or approved by the IRS). The plan deposits money from Medicare into the account. You can use this money to pay for your health care costs, but only Medicare-covered expenses count toward your deductible. The amount deposited is usually less than your deductible amount, so you generally have to pay out-of-pocket before your coverage begins.
  • Medicare MSA Plans do not cover prescription drugs. If you join a Medicare MSA Plan, you can also join any separate (stand-alone) Medicare Part D prescription drug plan
  • There are additional restrictions to join an MSA plan, and enrollment is generally for a full calendar year unless you meet certain exceptions. Those who disenroll during the calendar year will owe a portion of the account deposit back to the plan. Contact the plan provider for additional information.
  • Medicare beneficiaries may enroll through the CMS Medicare Online Enrollment Center located at www.medicare.gov.
  • Medicare beneficiaries can file a complaint with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services by calling 1-800-MEDICARE 24 hours a day/7 days or using the medicare.gov site. Beneficiaries can appoint a representative by submitting CMS Form-1696.