Amid all the news reports and pundit chatter bouncing around about government health care sign-ups, theres another health care deadline thats largely being ignored: Medicare.
This Saturday Dec. 7 is the annual deadline if you want to make changes in your current Medicare coverage. For those 65 and older (or younger recipients of Social Security disability), its a chance to switch carriers or coverage but only if you need to.
But many seniors are stymied this year, due to all the noise and attention focused on the Affordable Care Act deadlines, say Medicare experts.
Theres definitely a lot of confusion and misinformation out there, said Elaine Wong Eakin, executive director of California Health Advocates, the states nonprofit Medicare information and advocacy center.
Some people think they need to sign up for coverage. Worse, some have been told theyll be penalized or even incarcerated for not buying a (Affordable Care) plan, said Eakin.
None of thats true, of course. Generally, you dont need to make a change in your Medicare coverage, unless you want to switch providers or your prescription drug plan (Part D).
In some counties, your current provider may have dropped its plan, in which case you would have received a notice by the end of September. Or in other locations, like San Joaquin County, there may be new providers coming in, making it advisable to compare your current plan with other options.
The No. 1 concern should be: Can you afford your meds (prescription drugs) and is there a plan that might be better?, said Margaret Reilly, program manager for the Northern California office of the Health Insurance Counseling & Advocacy Program, known as HICAP.
Where to get answers
All 58 California counties are covered by HICAP offices, which offer free one-on-one appointments for counseling on Medicare enrollment. In the Sacramento region, the local HICAP office covers residents of nine counties: El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Sierra, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties.
But with the Dec. 7 Medicare deadline just days away, most of Californias HICAP centers are fully booked and not taking new appointments.
We have a small number of appointments available in certain sites, said Reilly. Well respond to calls but it could take several days.
At this point, she said, the best place to get help and compare Medicare plans is the official federal website: www.medicare.gov. Seniors can, for instance, compare plans offered in their county, as well as plug in their current medications to see which prescription drug plans work best.
Seniors can also call the (800) MEDICARE (633-4227) help line, but be prepared to wait.
Its not uncommon to wait on hold for 30 minutes, so be patient, said Reilly. For those on the West Coast, she said, the best time to call the federal Medicare office is early morning or late at night. The 800 line is usually staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she said.
Beware of scams
Especially during health care enrollment periods, seniors are warned to be wary of scam artists posing as Medicare advisers or benefits counselors. Typically, the callers offer to get your Medicare premiums reduced, issue a new Medicare card, arrange for medical equipment/services or handle enrollment issues. They try to get unsuspecting seniors to disclose their Medicare, bank account or credit card numbers.
In almost every case, those calls are fraudulent, said Reilly. To report an attempted Medicare scam, call the Senior Medicare Patrol (details below), a nationwide, free reporting line funded by the U.S. Administration on Aging.
Sit back, relax
The majority of seniors currently enrolled in Medicare can sit back and ignore the Dec. 7 deadline, says Reilly.
If theyre happy with their current provider, like their doctors and dont find their co-pays burdensome, theyre probably fine, she said. If you dont need to make a change and are happy with what you have, relax. Youre covered.
Call The Bees Claudia Buck, (916) 321-1968. Read her Personal Finance blog, www.sacbee.com/personalfinanceblog.