Dear Savvy Senior: Where can I get some help with my Medicare questions? I’m approaching 65 – Medicare enrollment age — and am confused with all the different options that are available today. What can you tell me?

Confused Retiree

 

Dear Confused:

It used to be that enrolling in Medicare was quick and simple. Not any more. Changes over the past few years in the way Medicare is offered has made signing up a lot more complicated. Here’s what you should know.

 

Many choices

The options and choices available to Medicare beneficiaries today can be dizzying. In addition to Original Medicare (Part A and B) that’s been around for 45 years, beneficiaries now have the option of enrolling in a prescription drug plan (Part D), and a supplemental (Medigap) policy — both of which are sold by private insurance companies. Or, a Medicare Advantage plan which covers health care, prescription drugs and extra services all in one. These plans, which also are sold by private insurers, are generally available through HMOs and PPOs. 

To help you figure out which Medicare plan(s) best meet your needs, there are a wide variety of services available depending on how much help you need. Some services are completely free; some charge a fee; and some are free to consumers but get commissions from insurance companies. Here’s where you can find help.

 

Free services

A good starting point to get familiar with Medicare is the “Medicare & You 2011” booklet that overviews the program and your options. You should receive a free copy in the mail sometime in October, or you can pick one up at your local Social Security office or read it online at medicare.gov

Medicare also offers a variety of free online tools that can help you find and compare health plans, supplemental policies and prescription drug plans (see www.medicare.gov/find-a-plan). Or, if you don’t have Internet access, or don’t feel confident in working through the information on your own, you can also call Medicare at 800-633-4227 and they will do the work for you over the phone.

 Some other great resources that can help are the Medicare Rights Center (medicarerights.org), which staffs a hotline at 800-333-4114 to help answer your Medicare questions. And, your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) which provides free one-on-one Medicare counseling in person or over the phone. To find a local SHIP counselor visit shiptalk.org, or call 800-677-1116.

Fee-based services

If the free services don’t cut the mustard and you need some additional help in making your Medicare decisions, there are a handful of fee-based companies that are very helpful. One of the best is Allsup Inc. (medicare.allsup.com; 888-271-1173), which charges $250 for its Medicare Advisor service. For that fee, Allsup will assign you an adviser who collects your personal information over the phone such as the prescription drugs you take and the doctors you use, and provide you customized advice on the best Medicare health plans that match your needs. They’ll even help you enroll in the plan(s) you select. Other service companies worth a look are Healthcare Navigation (healthcarenavigation.com; 877-811-8211), and American Medical Claims (amcstl.com; 888-569-2131).

 

Commission-based

Another way to get help with your Medicare enrollment is to consult an independent insurance agent. Agents typically get paid a commission to sell you a policy, although they offer plans from a number of providers. The Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America have a directory on their website (iiaba.net) that lets you search for agents in your area. But keep in mind that agents typically specialize in the Medicare plans they represent, rather than all the plans in your market.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

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