A new open enrollment period for Medicare is about to begin, and Americans ages 65 and older will be making or reconsidering one of their most important decisions.
Open enrollment runs from October 15 through December 7. It’s important to ignore all the Medicare ads delivered through television and the mail during the period. Establish a process for deciding on your Medicare coverage and learn what’s true and not true about plan options.
The first big decision is whether to enroll in original Medicare or a Medicare Advantage plan. It’s estimated by the Kaiser Family Foundation that in 2023, for the first time, half or more of beneficiaries enrolled in Advantage plans instead of original Medicare.
There are pluses and minuses to each type of coverage. But it’s important to give enough weight to the long-term consequences, and many beneficiaries don’t do that.
For example, consider coverage of short-term nursing home care.
Neither Medicare option covers long-term stays in a nursing home that are needed primarily for custodial care. But Medicare does cover up to 100 days in a nursing home or skilled nursing facility that’s needed after being in a hospital for at least three days.
This type of care typically is for rehabilitation or recovery after a major surgery, injury or illness. The individual isn’t ready to go home but doesn’t need to stay in a hospital.
In original Medicare, you, your doctor, and perhaps other medical providers decide whether you should go to a nursing facility and for how long.
But when you’re enrolled in an Advantage plan, the plan decides how much rehabilitation will be covered. Advantage plans tend to deny or limit stays in nursing homes compared to the care received by original Medicare participants, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The Inspector General’s report mentioned earlier said nursing home stays are among the services most frequently denied by Advantage plans.
Though original Medicare would cover the stays after a doctor recommends them, the Advantage plans can rule them “medically unnecessary” under their standards and policies and deny coverage.
Another long-term issue is your ability to change from an Advantage plan to original Medicare.
The rules allow you to change plans each year during open enrollment, such as by switching from an Advantage plan to original Medicare.
But as a practical matter, you could end up with less coverage if you switch after your initial enrollment period.
Original Medicare Part B has a number of coverage gaps. The most significant gap, other than prescription drugs, is the 20% coinsurance amount on most types of covered care. You’re on the hook for the 20%, with no dollar limit.
The coverage gaps are why original Medicare participants should obtain a Medicare supplement policy (also known as Medigap) that covers most of the gaps in original Medicare. They also should have a Part D prescription drug policy.
In your initial Medicare enrollment period, insurers are required to sell you the Medigap policy of your choice, regardless of your health history.
But after the initial enrollment period, the guaranteed issue rule no longer applies, except in a few states. The insurers can review your medical history or require a medical exam. Based on the results, an insurer can decline to issue you a policy or charge you a higher premium.
States can provide additional consumer protections for purchasers of Medigap policies. Currently four states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, and New York) extend the guaranteed-issue rule to Medigap applicants outside their initial enrollment periods.
A number of people initially sign up for Advantage plans because they expect lower out-of-pocket costs and want the additional benefits, such as vision and dental care.
But some beneficiaries want to switch to original Medicare after they develop health problems because they want to select medical providers from those outside the plan’s network and don’t want the plan to decide if they can see specialists or have certain tests and treatments.
Though Medicare allows a switch from an Advantage plan to original Medicare during the open enrollment period, as a practical matter, this option might not be available because the beneficiary might not be able to obtain a supplemental policy to cover the gaps in Medicare.
If you switch to original Medicare and can’t obtain an affordable Medigap policy, you’ll be responsible for all the coverage gaps in Medicare Part B. That might make the switch unaffordable and compel you to stay in an Advantage plan.
You might have a similar problem if you move. Advantage plans are local. There might be an attractive one available where you live now.
But if you move to another location later in retirement, you have to choose from the Advantage plans available in that area. There’s no guarantee an attractive Advantage plan will be available. Your best option then might be original Medicare, but you might not be able to buy a good Medicare supplement because of your health history.
Or you could sign up for an attractive Advantage plan when first enrolling in Medicare. But the plan could change its terms and be less attractive, or the insurer might stop offering the plan. Again, you have to find a new Advantage plan or switch to original Medicare and hope you’ll qualify for a Medigap policy.
These are some of the important long-term factors to consider when choosing Medicare coverage, but they aren’t mentioned in most of the ads and other information you’ll see during open enrollment.