If you have a Medicare health or prescription drug plan, the deadline to make changes to your 2017 coverage is quickly approaching, as Open Enrollment ends December 7th.
Medicare—the government-run health system for people ages 65 and older—affects more than 55 million Americans, and the enrollment period is the only time in the year when eligible Medicare beneficiaries can either enroll in the program or make changes to their plans. Those who miss this year’s open enrollment period will have to wait another year to alter their plan unless you have a major life event (marriage, a child, etc.).
If you are happy with your current Medicare plan, you do not need to take any actions. You can simply allow your plan to remain in place and go into effect starting Jan. 1, 2017. However, if do wish to make changes to your Medicare coverage, or if you just recently became eligible to sign up, you need to make those changes before the Dec. 7th deadline approaches.
The enrollment process can be quite tricky to follow, but below are the five choices you can make during Medicare’s Open Enrollment period.
1. Change from Original Medicare to an Advantage plan, or visa versa
A main decision Medicare beneficiaries should consider during open enrollment is which type of plan you want to have: original Medicare, which allows you to go to any doctor of your choice but can expose you to significant out-of-pocket costs; or a managed-care-style Medicare Advantage plan, which limits your choice of doctors, but also tends to be less costly and often offers extra hearing and vision benefits.
If you want comprehensive coverage under original Medicare, you’ll need to sign up for Part A (for inpatient hospital services and other types of institutional care), Part B (for physicians’ services and other forms of outpatient care) and Part D (for prescription drugs).
Eligible men and women can also select a Medicare Advantage plan (Medicare Part C) as an alternative to original Medicare. These plans are offered through private insurers and offer everything Medicare covers (a combination of Part A, B, D). However, the main disadvantage of an Advantage plan is that it limits participants to in-network doctors and hospitals.
2. Enroll in a Medicare Supplement, or “Medigap,” policy.
If you opt for an original Medicare plan, you will also want to consider a Medicare supplemental or “Medigap” policy, which can help pay some of the health care costs that original Medicare does not cover, such as copayments, coinsurance, and deductibles, that would normally require you to pay out-of-pocket. Typically, Medicare will pay its share of the Medicare-approved amount for a service and then Medigap pays its share so that the expense is paid in full. A Medigap policy is particularly valuable for seniors that live on fixed budgets and need to limit their expenses.
For those who want to buy supplements to help cover the balance of their health costs beyond traditional Medicare reimbursement, there are a variety of Medigap policies to select from, which can be found and compared here.
3. Switch Advantage plans.
If you currently have an Advantage plan, you can switch to a different Advantage plan during open enrollment.
4. Enroll in a Medicare Part D prescription drug plan.
Neither traditional Medicare nor Medigaps cover prescriptions unless you’re hospitalized. If you have original Medicare but don’t have prescription drug coverage through an Advantage plan, a Part D plan, or retiree insurance from your employer or union, you should consider enrolling in a Medicare Part D plan. These are private insurance policies that help with the high cost of prescription drugs.
5. Switch Medicare Part D drug plans.
If you already have a stand-alone Part D plan, you can switch to a different Part D plan during open enrollment. In fact, you should check every year to see if a different Part D plan would cover your prescriptions better than your old plan. Your needs and the drugs covered by your plan may have both changed.
How to find the best plans
Like with any health insurance, there is no one-size-fit-all plan, and unfortunately the Medicare program doesn’t make it easy for retirees to find the best deals. However, if you’re willing to invest a little extra time in searching around for better Medicare coverage, you can cut your monthly expenses by hundreds of dollars next year.
One of the best places to start when researching various Medicate options is MedicareInfo.org. This valuable online resource will compare Part D and Medicare Advantage plans by ZIP code and provides a host of tools to assist seniors in the decision-making process.
The multitude of choices for Medicare patients can be confusing, but with proper direction and research, beneficiaries can craft a health insurance package that not only meets their health care needs but does so at an affordable price.