Health & Fitness

New online tool will make it easier to compare Medicare plans, figure what’s best for you

The Medicare Plan Finder can be accessed on your phone.
The Medicare Plan Finder can be accessed on your phone.

Figuring out the best Medicare plan to meet your needs is like putting together pieces of a puzzle. This year, an improved tool on the Medicare website aims to help.

The Medicare Plan Finder, the most popular tool on Medicare.gov, has gotten an overhaul for the first time in a decade, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

The new online tool can help you compare the prices and benefits of Medicare options in your area during open enrollment, which is Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. It is available in English and Spanish.

The basics

There are two main ways to get Medicare coverage: Original Medicare (Part A and Part B) or a Medicare Advantage Plan (Part C).

Original Medicare helps cover hospitalization and doctor visits, but not prescription drugs. You can buy separate plans to help pay for medicine (called Part D) and out-of-pocket costs like deductibles and co-pays (known as Medicare Supplement Insurance or Medigap).

Medicare Advantage Plans, also called Medicare Health Plans, are private insurance policies. They are typically HMOs and PPOs that cover hospitalization and doctor visits. Most include prescription drug coverage, but often will limit which doctors and rehab centers you can go to.

Why shop?

People should look at their plans every year and compare it to others because plan prices and the benefits that each plan offers can change every year. Sometimes doctors will change the plans they accept.

“When you sit down to shop plans, have a list of the medications you take, the name of your pharmacy and a list of the plans your doctors accept,” said Kathleen Sarmiento, a liaison with Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders, known as SHINE, a federally funded, volunteer-based program that offers free help to Medicare beneficiaries to understand and compare coverage. Sarmiento works out of the Alliance for Aging in Miami.

“I always tell people before they sit down and comparison shop, if you are on a Medicare Advantage Plan, call your doctor’s office and ask them what plans they will accept in 2020,” Sarmiento said. Ultimately, the right plan for you means looking at plan prices and the benefits that are important to you.

Using the plan finder

Go to the Plan Finder on Medicare.gov. If you are already on Medicare, you will need to register online and create a password, just like you would do for Social Security, Sarmiento said

“The advantage is if you purchase medicine with your Medicare benefits, the medicine will automatically be included in your online Medicare profile so you won’t have to enter that. This will make it a lot easier to do online comparisons of insurances,” she said.

Inputting your ZIP Code, the prescription drugs you take and the pharmacy you use will help determine the plans in your area and out-of-pocket costs.

What the new Medicare Plan Finder does

Helps patients learn about Medicare coverage options such as Original Medicare, Medicare prescription drug plans, Medicare Advantage Plans, and Medicare Supplement Insurance, also known as Medigap.

Walks users through the Medicare Advantage and Part D enrollment process from start to finish.

Allows users to compare coverage on smartphones and tablets. “In 2018, approximately 25 percent of Medicare beneficiaries accessed Medicare Plan Finder on mobile devices, an increase of 40 percent from 2017,” according to CMS Administrator Seema Verma in a release.

Lets users compare up to three drug plans or three Medicare Advantage plans side-by-side.

Compares costs and benefits of different Medicare Advantage Plans, including new extra benefits such as adult day health services, in-home support services, caregiver support services, home-based palliative care and therapeutic massage. Users will be able to see up to 40 different extra benefits.

Builds a personal drug list and helps find a Part D prescription drug coverage that best meets needs.

What’s improved

Sarmiento was part of the SHINE team that reviewed the beta test of the new Plan Finder tool and gave feedback to help improve it before it was released.

“One of the improvements is the look of it. There’s a lot less text and a lot more space so it’s easier to review. We also had some input on the colors of the letters to make it easier to read,” she said. “The new tool will also let you sort insurance plans by features that are important to you.”

If you are on Medicare and you go to a pharmacy and buy medicine, the Plan Finder will automatically update it in your online account. If you’re brand new to Medicare, you can input the medicines you take to price compare plans. If you are on Medicare and want to enter a medicine to see the cost, the tool will still allow you to do that, Sarmiento said.

The changes are part of the eMedicare initiative to improve online Medicare tools to meet the needs of a growing number of tech savvy beneficiaries, said Verma of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in a statement.

The online tools do not replace Medicare’s traditional customer service options, however. People with Medicare will continue to have access to paper copies of the Medicare & You handbook and be able get help over the phone using 1-800-MEDICARE.

“I was really pleased with how the new Plan Finder looks. It’s a lot easier to figure out how to use it,” Sarmiento said. “The new tool will be rolled out Oct. 1, but all insurance information needs to be updated by Oct. 15, so if you’re shopping plans for next year, wait until the 15th.”

Where to find help

Medicare Plan Finder: Go to Medicare.gov/find-a-plan. Log into MyMedicare, create an online account or enter your ZIP Code, Medicare number and birth date for a personalized list of plans available to you. You can compare prices and benefits.

Medicare overview: Go to Medicare.gov/sign-up-change-plans. This will help you get started with Medicare and answer questions about how to apply and types of plans. You can also call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) for help in multiple languages. A free Medicare & You handbook is automatically sent to anyone enrolled in Medicare before open enrollment begins Oct. 15.

Social Security — www.socialsecurity.gov or call 1-800-772-1213 to find out Medicare eligibility, how to enroll, apply for Extra Help with Medicare prescription drug costs and ask questions about premiums.

SHINE (Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders) — www.floridashine.org, is a federally funded, volunteer-based program to help Medicare beneficiaries understand and compare coverage. You can make an appointment at a free counseling site, email questions or call 1-800-96ELDER (1-800-963-5337).

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