By Greg Dill
When you shop for a new car, you don’t just buy the first one you see, do you?
Probably not. You usually shop around, looking for the best deal you can get on a vehicle that fits your driving needs, as well as your pocketbook.
Well, it’s the time of year when you should think about shopping around for a Medicare health or drug plan. Medicare’s open enrollment period begins Oct. 15, 2017, and runs through Dec. 7, 2017.
If you have Original Medicare, meaning that you can choose any doctor or hospital that accepts Medicare, you don’t need to think about open enrollment. But if you have a Medicare Advantage (Part C) health plan or a Medicare (Part D) prescription drug plan, you may want to see whether there’s another plan on the market that would be a better match for you, at a lower price. If you’re enrolled in a plan and you’re happy with it, you don’t need to do anything.
But Medicare health and drug plans - run by private insurers approved by Medicare - can change from year to year. A plan can raise its monthly premium or drop a medicine that you need. So it makes good sense to review your coverage each year to make sure your plan still is a good fit for you in terms of cost, coverage and quality. If it isn’t, look for another plan.
During open enrollment, you can sign up for a Medicare Advantage health plan or Part D prescription drug plan, or switch from one plan to another. Your new coverage will take effect Jan. 1, 2018.
How do you shop for a new plan?
One way is the "Medicare & You” handbook mailed each fall to every Medicare household in the country. This booklet lists all the Medicare health and drug plans available where you live, along with basic information such as premiums, deductibles and contacts.
There’s also the Medicare Plan Finder, at www.Medicare.gov. Look for a green button that says "Find health & drug plans.” Click on that, plug in your zip code and you’ll see all of the Medicare Advantage and Part D plans available in your area. You can compare them based on benefits, premiums, co-pays and estimated out-of-pocket costs. Contact information for the plans is listed.
If you don’t have access to a computer, call (800) MEDICARE (800-633-4227). Our customer service representatives can help you with questions about Medicare health and drug plans. The call is free.
Another terrific resource is the State Health Insurance and Counseling Program (SHIP), an independent, nonprofit organization that provides free, personalized counseling to people with Medicare. You can make an appointment to speak with a SHIP counselor in person or over the phone. SHIP counselors are well-trained volunteers who often are enrolled in Medicare themselves, so they know the issues. They can help you sort through different health and drug plans and help find one that’s right for you. To contact your local SHIP office, go to www.shiptacenter.org.
If you’re enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan as of Jan. 1, 2018, but you’re not satisfied with it, you have a 45-day window to disenroll. Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 14, 2018, you can drop your plan and return to Original Medicare. You can also sign up for a Part D drug plan during that time.
Having trouble paying for your Part D plan? You may be eligible for the Extra Help program, which helps cover your premiums, deductibles and co-pays. Medicare beneficiaries typically save about $4,000 annually with Extra Help. For more information on Extra Help, go to www.SSA.gov/prescriptionhelp.
Greg Dill is Medicare’s regional administrator for Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and the Pacific Territories. You can always get answers to your Medicare questions by calling (800) MEDICARE (633-4227).