Annual Medicare Enrollment Period has Arrived
Monday, 14 October 2019
EDITORIAL NOTE: This is so far from comprehensive as to be a joke but I hope it will give you an overview of the basics of Medicare and how they apply in the annual enrollment period.
Because this post is longer than usual, I've used bolding and lists to make it easier to navigate and get to the sections that interest you most.
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It's that time again – Medicare Annual Open Enrollment begins tomorrow, 15 October, and lasts through 7 December. During this period of 54 days you can:
⏺ Switch from traditional Medicare to Medicare Advantage (MA)
⏺ Switch from Medicare Advantage to original Medicare
⏺ Select a different Medicare Advantage plan if you have one now
⏺ Enroll in a Part D prescription drug plan
⏺ Change to a different Part D plan if you already have one
If you are new or newish to Medicare, it can be daunting. Medicare is a massive program and I'm pretty sure that even people who are certified to help the rest of us figure it out don't know all of it.
In that regard, there is a short list of links at the bottom of this post for more detailed or personalized information.
Here are the various Medicare parts:
Part A: Part of traditional Medicare, it covers hospital and hospice care along with some skilled nursing services after a hospital stay. There is no premium for Part A.
Part B: Part of traditional Medicare, it covers doctor visits and certain outpatient services. The Part B premium is deducted from your monthly Social Security payment and will be about $144.30 in 2020, up from $135.50 in 2019. The exact amount has not been announced yet.
Parts A and B constitute traditional Medicare. You may choose any doctors who accept Medicare.
Part C: Medicare Advantage (MA), issued by private insurance companies, is required to include traditional Medicare Parts A and B (at the same premium as traditional Medicare) and often includes Part D along with limited coverage for vision and dental care, for example.
MA takes the place of traditional Medicare. (Some companies charge no premium.) You are restricted to their network doctors.
Part D: Helps pay for prescription drugs. Part D is private coverage for which you pay a separate monthly premium if you have traditional Medicare.
Medigap: Also called Medicare Supplemental, is private coverage that helps pay for what Medicare does not, such as co-payments, co-insurance and deductibles. Restrictions apply as to who can buy Medigap coverage and when.
MEDICARE AND YOU HANDBOOK
The Medicare and You Handbook has many explanations and answers. You can download an electronic copy online. There is a wide choice of editions: PDF, large-print PDF, ebook for your Kindle, iPad, etc. You can also telephone to have a CD audio version, a Braille version or the paper edition mailed to you.
The telephone number is 800.633.4227 or visit the webpage.
This booklet is well organized, clearly written and as easy to use as anything related to Medicare can be.
The official Medicare website is at medicare.gov. Check the dropdown menus at the top of the page for many specific questions.
If you have not signed up for My Medicare which personalizes the Medicare website for you, you can do that on this page. It can help a lot.
When I signed in to My Medicare to check my Part D coverage a couple of days ago, all my current prescriptions were already listed for me – names, dosages, quantities for each refill, and frequency of refills. All of it was correct.
If any of my prescriptions had changed, this is were I could edit them or add and subtract drugs as needed.
In my state, there are 28 Part D plans available, most with a deductible. With just a mouse click, I could see details of each plan and select up to three-at-a-time to compare with one another and check that my drugs are still covered.
That's important. It can change from year to year and, of course, each company's formulary is unique to it.
A recent mailing from that plan advised me that if I wish to continue for 2020, I don't need to do anything. My plan will roll over to next year.
You can also check drug prices of plans at several pharmacies near you and at mail-order pharmacies.
It took me about two hours to work through all the information and make my choice. I use seven prescription drugs. If you have more, it will take longer but the interface makes it relatively easy with one caveat: the plan finder is newly updated and may contain some glitches.
The above applies only to Part D in connection with traditional Medicare. If you have Medicare Advantage or are switching to it, you're on your own. MA is a mystery to me but Medicare's MA Plan Finder works similarly to the Part D Plan Finder.
PERSONAL SUGGESTION NO. 1: If you do not use any prescription drugs, choose the least expensive plan. Since there is no way to predict what might go wrong and therefore what drugs you would need, nothing else makes sense.
When I was diagnosed with cancer and began using prescription drugs, there was one not covered by my plan. Fortunately, it was not too expensive but in the next enrollment period, I chose a Part D plan that covered all my drugs.
(Yes, it is a stupid idea to make people choose a plan when they don't know what they will need it for. Complain to your representatives in Congress.)
PERSONAL SUGGESTION NO. 2: I was prescribed a new inhaler this year. When I was told my part of the price, I nearly passed out – about $500 per month. I told the pharmacist that was out of the question and prepared to see what else the doctor could recommend.
But the pharmacist told me that drug companies will reduce the price considerably in many circumstances, that I would need a declaration signed by my physician and that they, the pharmacy, would take care of all the paperwork.
In less than a week, the drug company approved me and the price dropped to just over $100. So if the price is high, ask what can be done. Pharmacists are well informed and helpful.
WHAT'S NEW IN MEDICARE FOR 2020
Medicare Advantage may now cover such items grab bars, rides to and from medical appointments, acupuncture, massage therapy and more. They are offered at the plan's discretion and only for certain health conditions. This applies only to Medicare Advantage and not to traditional Medicare.
At last, the Medicare Part D doughnut hole (coverage gap) goes away completely in 2020. However, the new limit for out-of-pocket expenses increases from $5100 in 2019 to $6,350 in 2020. Part D plan members will now pay 25 percent of the cost of generic and brand name drugs. Once you have reached that $6,350 threshold, you pay five percent of a drug's cost.
WHERE TO FIND PERSONALIZED MEDICARE HELP
You can get personalized help as you ponder your open enrollment decisions.
Medicare.gov has an online chat feature available during open enrollment, and the Medicare hotline, 800-MEDICARE (800-633-4227), is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the annual enrollment period.
SHIP (State Healthcare Insurance Assistance Program)
These state-based organizations offer help with Medicare questions, including your benefits, coverage, premiums, deductibles, and coinsurance along with help for joining or leaving a Medicare Advantage Plan, any other Medicare health plan, or Medicare Prescription Drug Plan (Part D).
Locate a SHIP representative in your state here.
Another SHIP list by state from Seniors Resource Guide. This list is up to date as of October 2019.
The wonderful Ronni Bennett put a great "intro to Medicare" guide on her blog "Time Goes By." Very helpful.
John Gear is a Salem attorney.