Kelly Kennedy | USA Today
WASHINGTON – Almost 4 million seniors saved about $2.16 billion through discounts for their prescription medications in 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services plans to announce today.

This, administrators say, should help keep costs to the government down in the future.

“Before, many beneficiaries were forced to stop taking the drugs,” said Jonathan Blum, director of the Center for Medicare. “This reduces costs through better management.”

When Medicare recipients are able to take their medications, Blum said, they are hospitalized less often for heart attacks, low blood sugar and asthma attacks. So far, he added, available data don’t reflect savings for those hospitalizations to Medicare.

Three of the medications on the top 10 list of savings for seniors were for mental health conditions — drugs that can help to prevent costlier in-patient treatment.

The 2010 health care law required a 50% discount on prescription drugs in the so-called doughnut hole, or the gap between traditional and catastrophic coverage in the Medicare drug benefit, also known as Part D. In 2012, the coverage gap is $2,930. The Affordable Care Act eliminates the doughnut hole by 2020.

The previous report, with numbers through the end of October, had shown 2.65 million Medicare recipients saved $1.5 billion on prescriptions. That rose to 3.76 million recipients by the end of December.

“More Medicare beneficiaries tend to fall into the doughnut hole toward the end of the year,” Blum explained. “So we definitely expected a larger proportion in the last quarter.”

Early in the year, beneficiaries with expensive medications, such as for cancer treatment or multiple sclerosis, quickly reach the maximum. Those who pay for insulin for diabetes or medications for heart disease tend to hit the coverage cap at the end of the year.

For example, in October, cancer drugs were ninth on the list of drugs for which seniors had saved the most money. By year-end, cancer drugs had dropped to 10th and blood pressure medications had been added to the list.

All of the medications on the list except for cancer drugs were for maintenance of chronic diseases.

In the first two months of 2012, about 100,000 people have received $92.7 million in discounts — about $904 per person.

In 2010, Medicare sent $250 rebate checks — totaling $846 million — to nearly 3.8 million seniors to try to counterbalance the gap.

The discount “is a very popular part of the Affordable Care Act,” Blum said. “It’s targeted to those most in need.”