November is health care month because most Americans face the challenge of signing up for new coverage for the year ahead. It’s an especially challenging time for seniors, who quickly learn that, while Medicare is a wonderful program, there are costly and significant decisions that must be made each year.
The Medicare open enrollment period for coverage in 2018 runs through December 7th. Of course, you can sign up for Medicare throughout the year if you reach age 65 and become eligible. And if you are still working and have coverage from your employer, you can delay signup for Medicare until you retire.
But the annual open enrollment period requires you to take a careful look at your coverages, especially Medicare Advantage and Part D drug plan. Here are some points to consider:
—Traditional Medicare vs. Medicare Advantage
The most basic choice you make when you first sign up is between traditional Medicare Part B and Medicare Advantage, also referred to as Part C. If you choose traditional Medicare, you’ll need a supplement to cover the many costs and co-pays that Medicare does not cover, as well as a prescription drug plan.
If you choose Medicare Advantage, you won’t need additional coverage since most of these plans provide comprehensive coverage, including prescription drugs. But you will be limited to the hospitals and doctors within the plan (or outside the network at additional cost). Advantage networks may change from year to year — or even during the year. And your own health changes may not qualify you to purchase a comprehensive supplement if you switch back to traditional Medicare later.
You’re seeing lots of television commercials these days, enticing you into Medicare Advantage all-in-one plans — with the promise of vision and hearing services, as well as prescriptions included. But remember these limitations before you make a switch.
You can sign up for or change your supplement at any time. Start by using the Medicare.gov plan comparison tool, which shows all plan types and what they cover, as well as costs in your state.
Supplements are offered by private insurers and have standardized coverages — labeled from A to N. You’ll find that Plan F offers the most comprehensive coverage, a worthwhile choice for the long run. An important note: If you apply within six months of enrolling in Medicare Part B, you cannot be denied the most comprehensive supplemental coverage for current health reasons.
While the policies are standard, the prices are not. A new survey from eHealthMedicare.com, which offers individual guidance on choosing a supplement, shows that a 65-year-old woman enrolling in the most popular Plan F could save an average of 42 percent by reviewing all her options. So it pays to review your Medigap supplement options every year.
—Medicare Part D (drug coverage)
The real challenge during Medicare open enrollment is in comparing Part D prescription drug plans. This is something you must review every year, because not only do drug prices (and “tiers”) change every year, the included pharmacies in each plan (and “preferred pharmacies”) may also change. There are a lot of moving parts!
Search drug plans on your own at Medicare.gov using the Part D Plan Finder tool. But eHealthMedicare.com and eHealth’s website Medicare.com offer similar tools, as well as more personalized, free service. AARP and Kaiser Medicare also offer help, but with more limited policy comparisons
Before getting started at Medicare.gov or one of these sites, line up all your prescription bottles in front of your computer. You’ll have to enter each drug and dosage correctly (you can save the list) in order to compare prices. Then with one click you’ll see the least-cost plans (including premiums and drugs) in your area.
Also compare the pharmacies included in each plan, and make sure that all your prescriptions are covered. Some pharmacies in the same plan may charge less for a specific prescription than others. And check reviews: Medicare.gov offers star ratings by consumers pertaining to issues like ease of getting your medicines.
Diane Omdahl, president of 65incorporated.com, a Medicare advisory firm, is watching drug plans closely. She reports that, so far this year, each of her clients but one is switching to a Part D plan. And in doing so they are saving from $150 to $4300 on drug costs for next year.
Medicare open enrollment is a tough time for seniors — especially those who take numerous prescription drugs, might be homebound and are not computer literate. Reach out and help a senior get the right policies at the right prices — a truly good deed. And that’s The Savage Truth.