The Medicare prescription drug benefit (aka, Medicare Part D) is biggest thing to hit American health care in decades. The massive, costly, and extraordinarily complex new program will likely realign the entire pharmaceutical supply chain and create a raft of new winners and losers in the marketplace. Looking into my crystal ball, here are some likely winners:

● Low-Income Medicare Beneficiaries Without Prescription Drug Coverage: Over two-thirds of the 41 million Medicare beneficiaries already have prescription drug coverage and many of those without drug coverage are wealthy or healthy enough to not worry. However, several million beneficiaries will benefit from the heavy subsidies offered for low-income, low-asset enrollees in Part D. Countless thousands will live longer, healthy, happier lives as a result. In addition, the process of enrolling in the Part D low-income sudsidy will likely increase the number of beneficiaries taking advantage of the Medicare savings programs. This is where state Medicaid programs pick up some or all of Medicare cost sharing.

● Employers Offering Retiree Drug Coverage: With nearly $100 billion in new taxpayer subsidies and a range of new options to cost shift retiree drug coverage to taxpayers, public and private employers are big winners over the long run.

● Generic Drug Manufacturers: Under Medicare Part D, drug benefits will be delivered by private drug plans at risk for drug spending. Most Part D enrollees will be served by a totally new creature in the marketplace – stand-alone prescription drug plans (PDPs) at risk only for unit cost and utilization. Using their relatively wide discretion in setting formularies and benefit designs, drug plans will work hard to drive patients to low-cost generic versions of medications.

● Beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage Health Plans: The new Medicare Advantage health plans are a boon to beneficiaries. Compared to the often dysfunctional and perpetually outdated Medicare fee-for-service system, Medicare Advantage (aka, Medicare Part C) offers seniors a range of voluntary HMO and PPO plans, lower cost sharing, higher quality, less paperwork, and often more benefits.

● Large, National Insurers: To successfully compete as a Medicare drug plan and establish a strong beachhead, players need deep pockets to manage risk, a sophisticated and scalable infrastructure, Medicare-savvy marketing, a stomach for the government contracting, and a recognized, positive brand. While many players are seriously overconfident and dangerously naive about the Part D business (sorry, guys), large national players have a shot at winning early on. If they play it smart, the large insurers can leverage the new market opportunities of both Medicare Part D and Medicare Part C. Of course, the federal government is not the most reliable purchaser and Congressional action can change winners to losers darn quick.

● Administrative Services Contractors: To survive and ultimately succeed in the Medicare drug benefit business, players will need a range of new or expanded capacities, including call centers, claims processing, drug utilization review systems, decision support tools, and medication therapy management (MTM) programs.

● Consultants, Actuaries, and Lobbyists: Last but not least, demand for consultants and actuaries is already through the roof. Right now, the biggest demand is for specialists who help drug plans prepare bids to Medicare. Later this fall, demand will grow for experts in marketing to and managing the complex Medicare population, including dual eligibles – who will ultimately make or break many drug plans in 2006 and 2007. Moreover, the business of pharma industry consultants, Medicare/Medicaid gurus, and public affairs specialists will undoubtedly rise dramatically as drug manufacturers begin to realize that strategically and tactically Part D is a whole new ballgame.

What about the losers, you ask? There are plenty. Stay tuned for my list of the likely losers under the brave new world of Medicare Part D.