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As Medicare enrollment nears, popular price comparison tool is missing

Susan Jaffe, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Business News

Millions of older adults can start signing up next week for private policies offering Medicare drug and medical coverage for 2020. But many risk wasting money and even jeopardizing their health care due to changes in Medicare's plan finder, its most popular website.

For more than a decade, beneficiaries used the plan finder to compare dozens of Medicare policies offered by competing insurance companies and get a list of their options. Yet after a website redesign six weeks ago, the search results are missing crucial details: How much will you pay out-of-pocket? And which plan offers the best value?

That's because the plan finder can no longer add up and sort through the prescription costs plus monthly premiums and any deductibles for all those plans. A mere human can try, but it is a cumbersome process fraught with pitfalls. One plan might have the lowest premium but not the lowest drug prices. Another could exclude a plan's preferred pharmacy that offers lower prescription prices.

"We can't guarantee you that you're going to be in the best plan or the cheapest plan anymore," said Howard Houghton, the former Fairfax County coordinator for the Virginia Insurance Counseling and Assistance Program who still helps with enrollment as a volunteer.

Using the old plan finder produced big savings. Counselors at Passages, the Senior Health Insurance Information Program (SHIP) serving five counties in Northern California, said in August they used it to save one woman $8,400 for this year and more than $5,000 when helping another client.

Medicare officials say the total cost calculator will be fixed in time for the annual enrollment season, which starts nationwide Oct. 15 and runs through Dec. 7. But they have yet to address multiple other issues raised by the Medicare Rights Center and industry groups.

 

"The new tool will provide more enhanced price and quality information" to assure informed health care decisions, Seema Verma, administrator at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said when she unveiled the redesign in August.

During open enrollment, beneficiaries can sign up for Medicare Advantage plans, the alternative to traditional Medicare that offer drug coverage and often more benefits than the government program does. About a third of the 64 million people in Medicare choose this option. Next year, the average Medicare Advantage monthly premium is expected to drop 14% compared with 2019 to an estimated $23, according to CMS.

This is also the only time most people in traditional Medicare can sign up for a drug plan, also known as Part D, to help cover their prescription costs. It's a good idea to review plans every year since costs and covered drugs can change from year to year. Estimated average monthly premiums for these policies will be $30 next year, about 8% less than in 2019, CMS has reported.

Medicare Advantage plans next year are allowed to offer new additional benefits for people with certain chronic diseases, such as dementia, diabetes or heart disease. That's on top of the non-medical benefits that are not tied to a person's health problems they were allowed to add this year, such as home-delivered meals after a hospitalization, transportation to medical appointments and minor home improvements, such as grab bars to prevent falls in the bathroom.

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