Medicare changes take seniors by surprise

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Nearly two-thirds of seniors don't know that the Medicare enrollment period is early this year, a survey shows, and that could cost them.

It opens Oct. 15, not a month later, as in the past. Those beneficiaries who don't enroll in or change plans by Dec. 7 will have to wait until next year.

That's just one of several changes that may trip people up, said Ross Blair, CEO of PlanPrescriber, which conducted the survey and helps seniors untangle Medicare's dizzying array of health and drug options.

The date change, included in the Affordable Care Act, is intended to solve the confusion that has occurred each year when people waited until the end of December to switch plans and showed up at pharmacies on Jan. 1 with no ID card for their new one. But it means beneficiaries have to hear about the new deadline: Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7.

"We already tend to get thousands of calls after enrollment closes, and for this year we’re concerned we'll get (many) more,” Blair said. “Pearl Harbor Day could be a day of reckoning for a lot of beneficiaries.”

The survey results -- see chart -- show that higher-income seniors are more knowledgeable about the changes and more likely to have reviewed their coverage last year.

Changing plans

Plan-switching rules have also tightened for customers of Medicare Advantage, in which private companies sell an all-in-one package that covers hospital and physician care, as well as drugs.

Beneficiaries who are accustomed to being able to switch Medicare Advantage plans in January and February won't be able to do so any more. All they can do during Medicare Advantage Annual Disenrollment Period from Jan. 1 to Feb. 14 is go back to traditional Medicare.

Tony Salters, spokesman at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said CMS has made beneficiaries' job of choosing a plan easier by weeding out hundreds of them that had low enrollment.

But even so, another recent PlanPrescriber survey found that 94 percent of seniors are in plans that cost them hundreds or thousands of dollars more than another one on the list.

In some cases, beneficiaries turn to family members to help them get into the right plan -- or out of the wrong one. That's what happened to 91-year-old Eleanor Wright, who moved into Bay Oaks assisted living facility in Miami seven months ago, said her niece, Kathy Nicastro.

“Someone probably got her on the phone and convinced her that the plan she's on is the best plan,” Nicastro said.

Wright, who is otherwise healthy, was fitted for a hearing aid on Thursday. She likes her doctor, but will switch off her Preferred Care Partners HMO and onto traditional Medicare during the upcoming enrollment period.

Nicastro, who lives in Massachusetts but flies down once a month to help look after her aunt, said she believes traditional Medicare will offer more doctor and hospital options.

Wright, who no longer keeps track of her own Medicare, laughed when she found out she might be changing plans.

“It's a little late in the game,” she said.

Bay Oaks President Kathryn Kassner said she often works with residents to help them navigate their options.

“(Wright) is the classic person who is at a juncture where they have to make a choice,” she said. “It’s daunting for a lot of people.”

For resources on choosing the best plan, patients can go to Medicare.gov or PlanPrescriber.com.

This article was reprinted from Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service and a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.