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Medicare Open Enrollment Is Happening Now. Here's What's New This Year

Elizabeth O'Brien
Medicare Open Enrollment Is Happening Now. Here's What's New This Year

Medicare’s annual enrollment period arrives each fall, as predictably as pumpkin spice takes over everything. Starting on Tuesday, you can choose new plans for 2020 — and while health insurance may not be as fun as seasonal treats, you could save on next year’s coverage if you shop around.

Medicare’s open enrollment runs from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7. During this time, beneficiaries can pick a new Medicare Part D drug plan, a new Medicare Advantage plan, or switch from original Medicare into a Medicare Advantage plan or vice versa.

“The message to consumers is that everyone should shop this year,” says Chris Hakim, vice president of eHealthMedicare, an online brokerage. This standard advice holds especially true this year, because many Medicare Advantage plans are rolling out new benefits for 2020.

Illustration by Jade Schulz

Comparing New Medicare Advantage Benefits

Also known as Part C, Medicare Advantage has become increasingly popular in recent years. These plans offer care managed by private health insurers that contract with the government to provide Part B outpatient services and Part A hospitalization coverage. Some 34% of beneficiaries have opted for them over traditional, fee-for-service Medicare, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Medicare Advantage plans are popular in part because they often cover services that original Medicare doesn’t, like vision and dental. Beneficiaries pay monthly Medicare Advantage premiums in addition to their Part B premium, although many Medicare Advantage plans charge $0 for premiums. Some plans also have built-in drug coverage. These features make Medicare Advantage a more economical choice than original Medicare with a Part D drug plan and a Medigap supplement plan.

You can compare plans online at Medicare.gov, using the Plan Finder tool. Beneficiaries can filter Medicare Advantage plans by dental, vision, hearing, transportation and fitness benefits. To search for new supplemental benefits such as meal delivery, click on “plan details.” But keep in mind that just because a plan lists a particular benefit doesn’t mean you’d necessarily be eligible for it — some benefits might require a doctor’s note.

The trade-off for these additional benefits? Many Medicare plans are HMOs with a relatively narrow network of participating doctors and hospitals, so you might not have access to the doctor or specialist of your choice. In addition to comparing the benefits that various Medicare Advantage plans offer, research each plan’s list of participating doctors and hospitals. Many insurers have a doctor look-up tool on their website, which you can access through Medicare.gov — scroll down to the bottom of the Plan Finder entry for each Medicare Advantage plan for the link. As an extra precaution, call your doctors to make sure they take whatever plan you’re considering.

Those who have used the Plan Finder in the past will notice something different this year: The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) revamped the old tool for the first time in about a decade, adding a modern interface. If you’ve previously created an account on MyMedicare.gov, you can use that same username and password to log into the new Plan Finder — there is no need to create another account.

“The whole system was designed to be intuitive for all users,” says CMS head Seema Verma.

Tallying Up Total Drug Costs

If you have an existing drug list stored in MyMedicare.gov, your old drug list won’t be transferred automatically to the new Plan Finder. You can print a copy of your existing list until Dec. 7 and use it to create an updated list in the new Plan Finder, using your old list and the suggestions pulled from their claims information.

If you have a Part D drug plan, pay attention to any changes to your drug coverage for 2020. By now, you will have received your plan’s annual notice of change in the mail, explaining anything new for 2020. Even if there aren’t any changes to your plan, it’s good to check if another plan covers your drugs more cheaply. An analysis by The Senior Citizens League two years ago compared the highest and lowest prices of commonly prescribed drugs across plans in one zip code and found the average cost differential between the highest and lowest to be a whopping $593 per month.

To sort Part D plans by total cost, click on the green “filter” button then select to filter by lowest drug and premium cost. (Make sure all the drugs you added show up on the final list, advises Mary Johnson, a Medicare policy analyst at The Senior Citizens League.)

If this all sounds like a lot of work (and let’s face it, it certainly can be) then seek out help. Your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) offers free, unbiased help selecting a plan based on your needs. ”A lot of people just go into automatic brain freeze at the idea of comparing plans, so I always tell them all they need to do is to click on this link to get the number of their local SHIP,” Johnson says. It’s a popular service, so don’t wait until the last minute to try to get an appointment.

If you’re switching to original Medicare from Medicare Advantage and want to buy a Medigap supplement plan, keep in mind that these plans are medically underwritten and, outside of certain circumstances, you might be denied coverage or charged more based on your health status. Medigap supplement plans are regulated at the state level and aren’t part of this annual enrollment period. Look into your options before dropping your Medicare Advantage plan.