Dodging the Medicare enrollment deadline can be costly – Press Enterprise



By Susan Jaffe, KFF Health News

Angela M. Du Bois, a retired software tester in Durham, North Carolina, wasn’t looking to replace her UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage plan. She wasn’t concerned as the deadline approached for choosing another of the privately run health insurance alternatives to original Medicare — a deadline that passed on Thursday, Dec. 7.

But then something caught her attention: When she went to her doctor last month, she learned that the physician and the hospital where she works will not accept her insurance next year.

Faced with either finding a new doctor or finding a new plan, Du Bois said, the decision was easy.

“I’m sticking with her because she knows everything about me,” she said of her doctor, whom she’s been seeing for more than a decade.

Du Bois isn’t the only one tuning out when commercials about the open enrollment deadline flood the airwaves each year — even though there could be good reasons to shop around. But sifting through the offerings has become such an ordeal that few people want to repeat it. Avoidance is so rampant that only 10% of beneficiaries switched Medicare Advantage plans in 2019.

Once open enrollment ends, there are limited options for a do-over.

People in Medicare Advantage plans can go to another Advantage plan or back to the original, government-run Medicare from January through March. And the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has expanded the criteria for granting a “special enrollment period” to make changes in drug or Advantage plans anytime.

But most seniors will generally allow their existing policy to renew automatically, like it or not.

Keeping her doctor was not Du Bois’ only reason for switching plans, though. With help from Senior PharmAssist, a Durham nonprofit that advises seniors about Medicare, she found a Humana Medicare Advantage plan that would not only be accepted by her providers but also cover her medications — saving her more than $14,000 a year, said Gina Upchurch, the group’s executive director.

Senior PharmAssist is one of the federally funded State Health Insurance Assistance Programs, known as SHIPs, available across the country to provide unbiased assistance during the open enrollment season and yearround to help beneficiaries appeal coverage denials and iron out other problems.

“Many people are simply overwhelmed by the calls, ads, the sheer number of choices,” Upchurch said, “and this ‘choice overload’ contributes to decision-making paralysis.”

Seniors in Durham have as many as 74 Advantage plans and 20 drug-only plans to choose from, she said.

The big insurance companies like the way the system works now, Upchurch said, with few customers inclined to explore other plans. “They call it ‘stickiness,’” she said. “If we had fewer and clear choices — an apple, orange, grape or banana — most people would review options.”

In Washington state, one woman switched from a plan she had had for more than a decade to one that will cover all her drugs and next year will save an estimated $7,240, according to Tim Smolen, director of the state’s SHIP, Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors.

In Northern California, another woman changed drug plans for the first time since 2012, and her current premium of $86 will plummet to 40 cents a month next year, an annual savings of about $1,000, said Pam Smith, a local director for California’s SHIP, called the Health Insurance Counseling & Advocacy Program.

And in Ohio, a woman sought help after learning that her monthly copayment for the blood thinner Eliquis would rise from $102 to $2,173 next year. A counselor with Ohio’s SHIP found another plan that will cover all her medications for the year and cost her just $1,760. If she stuck with her current plan, she would be paying an additional $24,852 for all her drugs next year, said Chris Reeg, who directs that state’s program.

In some cases, CMS tries to persuade beneficiaries to switch.

Since 2012, it has sent letters every year to thousands of beneficiaries in poorly performing Advantage and drug plans, encouraging them to consider other options. These are plans that have received less than three out of five stars for three years from CMS.

“You may want to compare your plan to other plans available in your area,” the letter says, “and decide if it’s still right for you.”

CMS allows low-scoring plans to continue operating. But in an unusual move, officials recently found that one plan had such a terrible track record that they will terminate its contract with government health programs next December.

CMS also contacts people about changing plans during open enrollment if they get a subsidy — called “extra help” — that pays for their drug plan’s monthly premium and some out-of-pocket expenses. Because some premiums will be more expensive next year, CMS is warning beneficiaries that they could be in for a surprise: a monthly bill to cover cost increases the subsidy doesn’t cover.

But many beneficiaries receive no such nudge from the government to find out if there is a better, less expensive plan that meets their needs and includes their health care providers or drugs.

That leaves many people with Medicare drug or Advantage plans on their own to decipher any changes to their plans while there is still time to enroll in another.

Insurers are required to alert members with an “annual notice of change,” a booklet often more than two dozen pages long. Unless they plow through it, they may discover in January that their premiums have increased, the provider network has changed or some drugs are no longer covered. If a drug plan isn’t offered the next year and the beneficiary doesn’t pick a new one, the insurer will select a plan of its choosing, without considering costs or needed drug coverage.

“Every year, our call volume skyrockets in January when folks get invoices for that new premium,” said Reeg, the Ohio program director.

At that point, Medicare Advantage members have until March 30 to switch to another plan or enroll in government-run Medicare. There’s no similar grace period for people with stand-alone drug plans.

One cost-saving option is the government’s Medicare Savings Program, which helps low-income beneficiaries pay their monthly premium for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor visits and other outpatient services. The Biden administration’s changes in eligibility for subsidies announced in September will extend financial assistance to an estimated 860,000 people — if they apply. In the past, only about half of those eligible applied.

Fixing a mistake after the open enrollment period is easy for some people. Individuals who receive “extra help” to pay for drug plan premiums and those who have a subsidy to pay for Medicare’s Part B can change drug plans every three months.

At any time, beneficiaries can switch to a Medicare Advantage plan that earns the top five-star rating from CMS, if one is available.

“We’ve been able to use those five-star plans as a safety net,” Reeg said.

Other beneficiaries may be able to get a “special enrollment period” to switch plans after the open enrollment has ended if they meet certain conditions. Local SHIP offices can help people make any of these changes when possible.

Reeg spends a lot of time trying to ensure that unwelcome surprises — like a drug that isn’t covered — don’t happen in the first place.

“What we want to do is proactively educate Medicare patients,” she said, “so they know that they can go to the doctors and hospitals they want to go to in the upcoming year.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.



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