Ask Kim


Time Running Out to Switch Medicare Plans

Kimberly Lankford

And you'll have fewer options this year than last.



Is it too late to switch Medicare Advantage plans for 2011?

The general open-enrollment season for Medicare Part D prescription-drug plans and Medicare Advantage all-in-one plans (which provide medical and drug coverage in one plan from a private insurer rather than through Medicare) ran from November 15 to December 31, 2010. That’s when you could have selected any Part D or Medicare Advantage plan for 2011. There’s still an opportunity for people to switch out of Medicare Advantage plans for 2011, but your options are more limited than in the past, and you have to hurry.

In the past, you had from January 1 to March 31 to make certain changes to your Medicare coverage for the year: You could switch from one Medicare Advantage plan to another, or you could switch from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare plus purchase a Part D prescription-drug plan, for any reason during that time period (although you couldn’t switch from one Part D plan to another).

But this year, the time period is shorter, and your options are more limited. You only have until February 14 to switch out of your Medicare Advantage plan and instead get coverage through traditional Medicare and sign up for a Medicare Part D prescription-drug plan. You can no longer switch from one Medicare Advantage plan to another during this time, nor can you switch from one Part D plan to another. You’ll have to wait until the next open-enrollment period in the fall to make those changes. (And heads up on the next open-enrollment period in the fall: The time frame for that has changed, too. Instead of running from November 15 to December 31, open-enrollment season for next year’s plans will run from October 15 to December 7, 2011.)

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There has been a lot of confusion about the new rules. Ross Blair, president and CEO of PlanPrescriber.com, a Web site and help line that guides people through their Medicare Advantage and Part D options, says that about 70% of the seniors calling the help line think that the old rules still apply.

Because you have limited time to make any changes for this year’s coverage, Blair recommends testing your Medicare Advantage plan before the February 14 deadline so that you don’t have any surprises after it’s too late to get out. “Ask your pharmacist or your plan whether your drugs are covered, and touch base with your doctor’s office or check with your plan to make sure the doctor accepts the plan,” he says.

And even if you’re not completely happy with your current Medicare Advantage plan, think carefully before making any changes. Because you can no longer switch from one Medicare Advantage plan to another, you’ll need to pay the traditional Medicare Part B premium, buy a separate Part D policy to cover your prescription drugs, and purchase a medigap policy to fill in some of Medicare’s deductibles and copayments. You’ll need to compare the premiums -- and out-of-pocket costs you’re likely to pay -- for Medicare plus Part D and a medigap policy against the costs and coverage you currently have with your all-in-one Medicare Advantage plan.

For more information about strategies for filling the gaps in Medicare, see Update Your Medicare Game Plan. Also see A Step-by-Step Guide to Comparing Your Medicare Options and Two New Medigap Plans to Consider.

Got a question? Ask Kim at askkim@kiplinger.com.



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