Medicare’s annual open enrollment period for choosing Part D prescription plans and Advantage Plans is early this year.

In fact, it started today, a full month earlier than past years. And open enrollment ends Dec. 7 more than three weeks earlier than usual.

“Many people don’t know this. They can start comparing plans now,” said Jaye Weisman, regional administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Weisman, who is based in Boston, is traveling through Maine and the rest of New England to get word out about the new deadline and other changes that could affect the nearly 265,000 Medicare beneficiaries in Maine.

One other notable change in Maine this year is the availability of a five-star-rated Medicare Advantage Plan, or private health plan.

Martin’s Point Health Care, a Portland-based nonprofit primary care provider, is one of nine companies nationwide to receive the top quality rating from the federal agency. The five-star rating was given to both its Value and Prime Medicare Advantage Plans based on a long list of quality criteria, such as preventive screenings, chronic illness management and customer satisfaction.

“We’re honored to be recognized by CMS,” said Dr. David Howes, president and chief executive officer of Martin’s Point.

Martin’s Point plans already serve about 12,500 Mainers, and the five-star rating could bring in more patients.

The rating, which is designed to encourage quality and cost savings, means Martin’s Point will receive higher reimbursements from Medicare and will be able to enroll new beneficiaries year-round, not just during open enrollment.

Maine seniors have the choice of 28 Medicare Part D plans and 15 Medicare Advantage Plans this year. Beneficiaries already should have received a booklet from Medicare outlining all of the choices.

Seniors can choose to make no new selections and stay in their current plans, but Weisman and others are encouraging seniors to reassess plans every year because of the potential for expensive changes in coverage.

And some people will need to make changes because their current plans will no longer be offered in 2012.

Carol Rancourt, who manages Medicare education for the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, said the cost of individual plans can go up or down every year. The cost of prescription plans can change dramatically depending on what drugs a patient needs.

“There’s a lot of movement and people should check,” she said.

Rancourt is helping arrange more than 100 one-on-one sessions throughout Cumberland and York counties during the open enrollment period. Seniors who want help assessing the different plans and comparing costs can make a reservation and sit down with a staff member or trained volunteer at one of about 20 sites in southern Maine.

Rancourt said her agency also is working hard to get the word out that choices need to be made before Dec. 7.

The enrollment period is earlier this year to allow more time to process changes before January. It also was extended to give beneficiaries more time to shop for plans.

Rancourt said the new five-star rating system will help seniors make good decisions. It also will encourage all plans to improve the quality of care and reduce costs, she said.

Overall, costs for Medicare prescription plans and private health plans in Maine are stable, Weisman said.

Mainers can find Medicare Advantage Plans with no premiums, and most are eligible for a plan with a lower premium for a prescription drug plan. The lowest prescription-drug plan premium is $15.10 per month.

Many Mainers also are eligible for a low-income subsidy for prescription drug plans.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]