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How to Compare Medicare Policies

State programs can help you pick a plan over the phone or in person.

I’d like to research my options for Medicare Part D policies for next year, and I see that you often recommend using the Plan Finder tool at Medicare.gov. But I don’t have access to the Internet. Is there another way to get help comparing premiums and benefits?

The Medicare Plan Finder tool is a great way to compare plans available in your area, as well as calculate out-of-pocket costs for your specific drugs and dosages. But not everyone can navigate the site successfully.

If you need assistance, the State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIP) can be a tremendous resource. Volunteer counselors in every state are available to help seniors pick a Part D or Medicare Advantage plan either over the phone or in person at numerous locations, such as senior centers and hospitals. There are nearly 200 counseling sites in Florida alone. Plus, some SHIP counselors conduct seminars during open enrollment to help groups of people with their Part D or Medicare Advantage questions.

“The average time we spend with a beneficiary is 45 minutes,” says Andrea Gray, of SHINE (short for Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders), Florida’s state assistance program. When you visit the counselor, bring your annual notice of change -- which you should have received from your Part D or Medicare Advantage provider letting you know about any changes to your coverage or premiums for 2012. Bring your medications, too, so the counselor can put the names and dosages into the computer to compare Part D plans; you can watch as the counselor uses the Medicare tool to find plans whose combinations of coverage and price are right for you.

Counselors can get very busy, especially near the end of open-enrollment season, which begins October 15 and runs to December 7 -- not December 31, at it has in previous years. (See New Deadlines for Medicare Choices for more information about the new open-enrollment timeline for Medicare Part D and Medicare Advantage plans.) So it’s a good idea to make an appointment to meet with a counselor before the end of November to give you time before the December 7 deadline.

You can start researching your plan options immediately because the 2012 plan information became available at Medicare.gov on October 1. To find contact information for your local SHIP, call 800-633-4227, or go to www.shiptalk.org. You’ll also find SHIP information on the back of your Medicare & You Handbook, which you should have received by the end of September.

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