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.

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“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.

Medicare shopping season is near — here’s how to give your coverage a checkup

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.

Next year, the additional services some Advantage plans will offer hardly sound like insurance benefits: pest control, dog food for service animals, home-delivered meals and discounted groceries.

“It’s really shifting from reactive care to preventative care,” said Martin Esquivel, vice president for Medicare product management at Anthem, which will offer those and other new perks to some of its more than a million Medicare Advantage members.

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Smaller Medicare Advantage plans have also expanded benefits. The 60,000 Alignment Healthcare members in some California, Florida and North Carolina plans will have access to free transportation to doctor appointments from Uber or Lyft.

To address social isolation, some California members who also have certain chronic diseases can receive visits from “Grandkids On-Demand,” college students who can help with light housekeeping and provide companionship for up to two hours a day. Humana and Aetna will also offer the service in some plans.

But most insurers are not embracing the opportunity to add extra benefits.

“Of those Medicare Advantage plans affected by the new rules, 10% (or about 500) offered new supplemental benefits in 2020 for people with serious chronic illnesses, such as in-home services, palliative care, respite support for people’s caregivers or adult day care,” said Robert Saunders, research director for payment and delivery reform at Duke University’s Margolis Center for Health Policy. He is still analyzing the other categories of extra benefits.

UnitedHealthcare, which controls 26% of the Medicare Advantage market, is focused”on providing the core medical benefits, which is why people purchase health insurance in the first place,” said Steve Warner, vice president of the UHC Medicare Advantage product team.”Most consumers don’t want to buy a plan that’s been loaded up with ancillary benefits that they don’t think they’re going to use.”

Instead, the insurer is offering more plans that do not restrict members to a network of health care providers and introducing specialized plans for people with diabetes or dementia, among other changes.

Detective work may be required

Because new extra benefits will not be accessible in every county, seniors may need to do some detective work to find out what’s available. Using the plan finder, it’s possible to narrow down the Medicare Advantage choices only to those plans that offer hearing, vision, dental, fitness and transportation coverage.

Bonnie Burns, a consultant to California Health Advocates, recommends that customers call insurers to confirm details before signing up.

Among the improvements in the new plan finder is the ability to compare estimated costs of Medicare Advantage plans against coverage under traditional Medicare with a separate drug plan and one of 11 kinds of Medigap supplement plans, which cover all or some of the out-of-pocket costs Medicare doesn’t pay for.

But the monthly premiums listed for Medigap policies — at least in some areas  are wildly off course. According to the plan finder, a senior in San Francisco can buy a Medigap plan for as little as $20.83 a month. Yet such a plan is not included in the rate chart published by the California Department of Insurance, which lists the cheapest bare-bones policy for a 65-year-old at four times more.

With a more complicated, slower enrollment process, it’s likely that older adults will need more help. And help may be scarce.

“It means fewer people that we get to see because we’re giving each one more time,” said Alicia Jones, administrator of the state SHIP program at Nebraska’s Department of Insurance.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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