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Get Help With Medicare Coverage

Many of you wanted to know what kind of coverage I chose. That’s still a work in progress.

Whew! Thanks for your overwhelming response to my column on the challenges of signing up for Medicare). Some of you sympathized with my situation—often in colorful terms. "Thus began a journey into the bowels of bureaucratic mayhem," wrote one reader. "I had to laugh because I just went through the same maze," wrote another.

Some of you offered detailed advice on how you negotiated that maze: "I have been on Medicare for 10 years and have had at least five different Medicare Part D drug plans," wrote one reader. Others complimented local Social Security representatives who were "excellent to work with and got the issues resolved quickly." Some e-mails were eloquent pleas for help: "I need to know more than what my options are; I need to know how to competently choose among those options."

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And some of you offered assistance. For example, Gary Davis volunteers with the Chester County office of Pennsylvania's State Health Insurance Assistance Program. "We offer a telephone help line, educational seminars and one-on-one counseling," Gary wrote. (SHIP is a nationwide program; go to shiptacenter.org or call 800-633-4227 to find the office closest to you.)

SHIP is one source Kiplinger recommends in our own extensive Medicare coverage and in Kiplinger's Retirement Report. Medicare.gov has price listings for Medicare Advantage plans and Part D drug plans available in your area.

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Finding price comparisons for Medicare supplement (medigap) policies takes more digging. My state, Maryland, has a comprehensive rundown on dozens of plans available in the state, but plans appear alphabetically by carrier, so finding price information can be tedious (go to naic.org and click on "map" for links to your state insurance department). For $49, Kiplinger readers can get a personalized report from Weiss Medigap that ranks plans by price.

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Help wanted. I was surprised by the number of readers who had sought help from independent insurance agents or consultants to sort out the Medicare puzzle or who asked for guidance on how to find an agent familiar with Medicare. In general, you want an agent who specializes in health insurance. Because agents are compensated by insurers, the challenge is to find those who are truly independent and work with a number of carriers, not just one company. "It's important to ask how many health plans an agent represents," says Shaina Popkin, an independent agent at Presley General Insurance Agency in Orange County, Calif. "You're not looking for any specific number, but enough that you feel comfortable with."

At eHealthMedicare.com, agents on call nationwide deal with multiple insurers. "In the case of Medicare Advantage and Part D drug plans, the government sets fixed commissions," says Andrew Shea, vice president of Medicare products at eHealth. "Commissions for Medicare supplements tend to be very similar among plans."

Some Medicare consultants charge a flat fee. For example, 65 Incorporated charges $399 for an hour-long consultation about coverage options and premiums when you initially enroll in Medicare at age 65.

Finally, many of you wanted to know what kind of coverage I chose. That's still a work in progress. I enrolled in a Medicare Advantage PPO because I qualified for a subsidy through my husband's former employer. It has a wide provider network, prescription drug coverage and, with the subsidy, it was the least expensive option. But when the subsidy ends, I'll have to reevaluate. So the saga continues.

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