By Jim Miller
Dear Savvy Senior,
I’m considering making changes in my Medicare coverage during the open-enrollment period. Can you recommend any free resources that can help with my choices?
There are a number of good resources you can turn to that can help you choose Medicare coverage that better suits your needs, that’s completely free to use.
Each year during Medicare’s open enrollment — Oct. 15 through Dec. 7 — all Medicare beneficiaries can change their coverage without penalty. Doing so, given that insurers are constantly tweaking their plans and offerings, could help lower your premiums or give you access to better care. Any changes you make to your coverage will take effect Jan. 1, 2019.
To get help with your Medicare decisions, a good starting point is to get re-familiar with the primary parts — traditional Medicare, Medicare Advantage, supplemental (Medigap) policies and prescription-drug coverage — Medicare publishes an excellent guide called “Medicare & You” that you can access at Medicare.gov/medicare-and-you.
If you are already enrolled in Medicare Advantage or a Medicare Part D prescription-drug plan, it’s very important that you read and understand your “Annual Notice of Changes” and “Evidence of Coverage,” which should have arrived in the mail in September. These documents explain how your existing coverage will change in 2019 and how much you’ll pay for that coverage.
Your next step is to go Medicare’s online “Plan Finder” tool at Medicare.gov/find-a-plan. Here you can enter some basic information — your Medicare number and prescription drugs (name and dosage) — and it will produce a list of possible health-care plans in your area, the costs involved, drug coverage and customer-satisfaction ratings. Or, if you don’t have internet access, or don’t feel confident in working through the information on your own, you can also call Medicare at 800-633-4227 and a customer service representative will do the work for you over the phone.
If you want personalized help with a Medicare specialist, contact the Medicare Rights Center or your State Health Insurance Assistance Program.
The Medicare Rights Center is a nonprofit group (MedicareInteractive.org) that offers a national helpline (800-333-4114) where staff members answer questions about Medicare, and can help you choose coverage, at no charge.
And your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), which may go by a different name in your state, provides free one-on-one counseling in person or over the phone to beneficiaries, as well as family members or caregivers. SHIPs are federally-funded programs that are not connected to any insurance company or health plan. To find a SHIP counselor in your area, see ShiptaCenter.org or call the Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116.
Another good resource, if you’re interested in choosing a new Medicare Advantage plan, is the HealthMetrix Research Cost Share Report at MedicareNewsWatch.com. This free website lists the best Advantage plans by area based on your health status.
Also, several Offices for the Aging in the area offer free seminars that help seniors select the best plans. Those seminars are unbiased and not affiliated with any health insurance plan.
Another way to get free assistance with your Medicare Advantage, prescription drug or Medigap plans is to use an agent or broker who specializes in Medicare-related insurance in your state. These people get paid a commission to sell you a policy from the insurance providers they represent.
There are federal rules and state laws governing agents or brokers who sell Medicare plans, which include things like barring them from showing up uninvited at your house to pitch a plan or trying to lure you with a cash offer. They also cannot legally charge you a fee to process your enrollment.
It’s also important to understand that commission-based agents and brokers will present only the Medicare plans they represent, rather than all the plans in your market. So, you may miss out on some plans that could benefit you.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.