Medicare Beneficiaries May Need an Advil or Two to Navigate Choices This Year

October is a critical month for Medicare beneficiaries to start studying their healthcare choices. During “open enrollment” — the period from October 15 to December 7 this year — those 65 and older can save money on monthly premiums, prescription drugs, and other costs (copays, deductibles and prescription drugs) by changing plans.

But few retirees are confident they can choose a plan that will save them money, says the Kaiser Family Foundation, and this year, the task is complicated by the new Medicare Plan Finder unveiled in late August by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). CMS continues to tweak the system to make it more user-friendly but, in the meantime, the tool is creating confusion that makes the process of evaluating healthcare choices harder, say Medicare advocates.

With healthcare costs in retirement rising above the rate of inflation, it’s critical for Medicare beneficiaries to shop the price. Business reporters can their readers evaluate their healthcare choices by answering one or all of the following questions:

What is causing confusion with the new Medicare Plan Finder?

When the new system was introduced, it didn’t have some of the sorting features as the previous Medicare Plan Finder, which allowed beneficiaries to see lowest-cost plans or sort and compare prices at pharmacies. The new Medicare Plan Finder also doesn’t allow beneficiaries to save information without setting up an account. CMS continues to tweak the system, so should consumers wait until November to sign up, as some advocates advise? Another challenge: Just 26% of those 65 and older feel comfortable using computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices, according to a 2017 report from the Pew Research Center.

How can seniors best evaluate their choices?

Assembling a panel of older readers will test your old-school communication skills—you may have to visit senior centers and find other ways to connect with these older readers. Ask your panel to describe their experiences so far with the new system. In 2018 healthcare costs in retirement grew at 4.22%, according to the most recent report from HealthView Services, a leading provider of healthcare cost projections. That number should concern not only those in or near retirement, but those who are 55 and 45 years old, too, who will spend a growing portion of their income on healthcare costs in the future.

What’s happening in your state?

Find out. Call your State Health Insurance Plan (SHIP), which provides free counseling and assistance to Medicare beneficiaries, their families and caregivers. Is your state SHIP struggling to train volunteers before open enrollment begins on October 15? How are volunteers getting the word out to beneficiaries on scheduling calls early, so they can get the help they need in time? SHIP volunteers help beneficiaries obtain coverage through original Medicare, Medicare Advantage, Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage and Medicare Supplement (Medigap), in addition to helping those with limited incomes apply for Medicaid and other programs that help reduce healthcare costs.

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