Every year, Medicare has an open enrollment period: October 15 – December 7.
During this time, Medicare beneficiaries can do the following:
- Switch from Original Medicare to Medicare Advantage, or vice versa;
- Switch from one Medicare Advantage plan to another;
- Change Medicare Part D (prescription drug) plan; or
- Enroll in a Medicare Part D (a late enrollment penalty may apply).
Medicare health and drug plans can make changes each year—things like cost, coverage, and what providers and pharmacies are in their networks. It is important for Medicare beneficiaries to review their current plans, options, and needs for the next year. Many beneficiaries fail to take any action during open enrollment; Medicare is not a “set it and forget it” insurance plan.
Before you can start deciding if and what to change about your Medicare benefits, you have to understand the basics of Medicare.
In this article, I’ll review the basics of Medicare Parts A, B, C and D. Then, I’ll share some tips on navigating the Medicare Open Enrollment period and how to get help, if you’re considering making a switch or if you need help affording the Medicare premiums.
What to Know About Medicare A, B, C, and D
It’s easy to get confused by all the letters associated with Medicare. Here’s what to know:
Part A – This helps pay for a stay in the hospital and skilled nursing facilities, home health services, and hospice care – as long as certain conditions are met. There are no monthly premiums if you or your spouse paid sufficient Medicare payroll taxes while working. Otherwise, you can buy Part A services by paying monthly premiums.
Part B – This helps pay for doctors’ services, both in and out of the hospital, and outpatient care such as lab work and screenings. Also covered are some medical equipment and supplies, such as wheelchairs and oxygen, if certain conditions are met, and most drugs or vaccines that are administered in a doctor’s office. Unless your income is limited enough to qualify for state assistance, you pay a monthly premium for Part B. Medicare typically pays 80 percent of the Medicare-approved cost of each service and you pay 20 percent. If you have supplemental insurance, it may cover the out-of-pocket expenses.
Part C – This provides an alternative way to receive Medicare services through private managed-care plans (HMOs and PPOs). These plans must cover all the same services as the traditional Medicare program (Parts A and B), but may charge lower copays. The plans may also offer Part D drug coverage and some extras, at their discretion, such as routine dental, vision and hearing care. You may pay a monthly premium in addition to the Part B premium, although some plans charge no premiums of their own. Medicare Advantage plans may restrict your choice of doctors and other providers, or charge higher copays for going out of network.
Part D – This helps pay for prescription drugs that you use at home. You can get this coverage in one of two ways: by joining a private “stand-alone” Part D drug plan for an additional monthly premium (if you are enrolled in traditional Medicare), or by enrolling in a Medicare Advantage plan that includes Part D coverage in its benefits package.
Medicare allows beneficiaries to have Original Medicare, Original Medicare with a Medicare Supplement (or Medigap) Plan, Original Medicare with a drug plan, Original Medicare with a drug plan and a Medicare Supplement (or Medigap) Plan, or a Medicare Advantage Plan (with or without a drug plan). Beneficiaries may also have private insurance from an employee or retirement plan.
How to Navigate Medicare Open Enrollment
If you’re an older adult, throughout October you are likely inundated with mail from various health insurance companies. As mentioned before, Medicare’s Open Enrollment is October 15-December 7.
Since Medicare’s Open Enrollment is the time that beneficiaries can sign up for (or change) Medicare Advantage Plans, this means October is when the insurance companies are in serious competition for your business.
Unfortunately, this often ends up being a confusing time for older adults and families. Medicare offers an overwhelming list of options. There’s a lot of flexibility, but this also leads to a lot of uncertainty about what — if anything — to do about one’s Medicare coverage.
In my work as a social worker and geriatric care manager, I’ve found that about 80% of older adults (or their family members) are unable to tell us what type of insurance they have.
Generally, about one-third of all Medicare beneficiaries have Medicare Part C, which means they are in a Medicare Advantage Plan. (But of those that have Medicare Advantage Plans, only about 40% are aware that they do not have Original Medicare. )
The competition among Medicare Advantage Plans can be fierce, so there are rules about what the insurance companies can and cannot do, to try to get your family’s business.
What Medicare Advantage Plans can and can’t do
In order to market to potential customers, Medicare Advantage Plans are allowed to conduct certain activities, such as using direct mail, radio, television, and print advertisements. Plans can also send emails, but they must provide an opt-out option in the email for people who do not wish to receive them.
Medicare Advantage Plans are not allowed to:
- Call you if you do not give them permission to do so
- Visit you in your home, nursing home, or another place of residence without your invitation
- Ask for your financial or personal information (like your Social Security number, Medicare number, or bank information) if they call you
- Provide gifts or prizes worth more than $15 to encourage you to enroll. Gifts or prizes that are worth more than $15 must be made available to the general public, not just to people with Medicare
- Disregard federal and state consumer protection laws for telemarketing, the National Do-Not-Call registry, or do-not-call-again requests
- Market their plans at education events or in healthcare settings (except in common areas)
- Sell you life insurance or other non-health products at the same appointment (known as cross-selling), unless you request information about such products
- Compare their plan to another plan by name in advertising materials
- Use the term “Medicare-endorsed” or suggest that their plan is a preferred Medicare plan
- Plans can use Medicare in their names as long as it follows the plan name (for example, the Acme Medicare plan) and the usage does not suggest that Medicare endorses that particular plan above other Medicare plans
- Imply that they are calling on behalf of Medicare
If you feel a plan or agent has violated Medicare’s marketing rules, you should save all documented proof, when available, such as an agent’s business card, the plan’s marketing materials, and your phone call records. Report the activity to 1-800-MEDICARE or your local Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP). To contact your SMP, call 877-808-2468 or visit www.smpresource.org.
How to Get Help Choosing, Changing, or Paying for a Medicare Plan
To provide support to Medicare beneficiaries, each state has a State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP). SHIPs offer local, personalized counseling and assistance to people with Medicare and their families. Your local SHIP can be found at: https://www.shiptacenter.org/
If your parents have limited income and resources, they can get help paying some or all of the Medicare premiums, deductibles, and coinsurance through Medicare Savings Programs (MSPs). Learn more about Medicare Savings Programs (MSPs) here: https://www.medicare.gov/basics/costs/help/medicare-savings-programs
Other Useful Resources
For more on Medicare Open-Enrollment, here’s a podcast episode in which Dr. K and I discuss Medicare and I explain how to know if you should switch plans:
(For a short tutorial on how to search the transcript, see here.)
And here are the online resources that I routinely recommend to my clients:
- State Health Insurance Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP)
I hope this information has been helpful to you. Although it can take some effort to review one’s Medicare insurance and make changes if needed, it can make a big difference to the services you’ll get later during the year. Good luck with Medicare Open Enrollment!
[Michelle Allen is an experienced social worker and geriatric care manager based in Atlanta, and is one of our featured experts providing guidance in my Helping Older Parents programs. Since our members have raved about the Medicare guidance she’s been sharing with them, we decided to have her share this info with our regular Better Health While Aging readers as well. — L. Kernisan]