retirement

Comparing Medigap Policy Costs

My mother is paying $171 per month for her medicare supplement insurance policy. Is that about right?

My mother is paying $171 per month for her medicare supplement insurance policy. Is that about right?

That sounds in the ballpark, but the specifics vary a lot depending on her age, where she lives and the type of policy she has. The average cost for the most popular medigap policy, called Plan F, is $1,813 a year for a 65-year-old woman, according to Weiss Ratings -- just a little less than the $2,052 your mom is paying now. Older policyholders with richer policies generally pay more.

But it's still a great time for your mom to check out her options. The new medicare prescription drug plan introduced some interesting alternatives while making some of the old medigap policies a horrible deal.

Thanks to generous government subsidies, Medicare Advantage plans -- which cover healthcare as well as prescription drugs -- are now more common, more flexible and less expensive than they had been in the past. Some charge $0 premiums, in addition to the medicare Part B premium, and can be a good alternative to medigap.

No longer just medicare HMOs, some of these plans now let you use any doctor that accepts medicare (private fee-for-service plans) or large networks of doctors that span several states (regional PPOs). To find out about the options in your area, see the Personal Plan Finder at Medicare.gov.

And if your mother has a medigap policy with prescription drug coverage -- plans H, I or J -- then she should consider other options. Those policies provide much less drug coverage -- at a much higher price -- than the new government-subsidized medicare prescription drug plans. You can switch to another type of medigap policy (A through G or the new K and L) and buy a standalone Part D drug plan, or switch to a Medicare Advantage plan for all of your medical care. To search for a plan in your area and calculate the costs, go to Medicare.gov's Prescription Drug Plan Finder.

Even if your mother is happy with her current coverage, it's a good idea to compare prices from other companies. Even though the government created 12 standardized plans (A through K) -- with every plan A, for example, offering the exact same coverage -- the price range can be huge from company to company. In a 2005 study by Weiss Ratings, the annual premiums for a 65-year-old woman buying Plan F ranged from $516 to $10,788 -- that's not a typo -- even though each policy provided the same coverage. Many people pay more than they need to just because they don't know to shop around.

After you pick the letter plan you want, see how the policies are priced. Attained-age policies increase the premiums as the insured ages; issue-age and community-rated policies do not (both can raise rates due to health-care inflation). It's generally best to buy the lowest-priced issue-age or community-rated policy, which may cost a little more in the beginning (but often does not) but usually doesn't raise rates as high through time. You can check out prices in your area through the Medicare.gov personal plan finder, through most state insurance department's Web sites (see the insurance page at Kiplinger.com for links) or you can pay $49 for a personalized list of prices from Weiss Ratings. Depending on your mom's health and age, she may not qualify for some of the policies and prices on those lists.

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