Seniors reminded that deadline for making 2013 Medicare choices is approaching

11/08/2012 12:00 AM

11/07/2012 8:25 PM

Amid the avalanche of campaign mail the last couple months, many seniors may have overlooked some crucial messages: Medicare notices.

And that could be costly. With the deadline to make 2013 Medicare choices less than a month away, some officials are concerned that important notices – on premium hikes, prescription drug plan switches and other details – may get missed.

"We think there could be mail fatigue," said Margaret Reilly, a regional director in West Sacramento with the Health Insurance Counseling & Advocacy Program.

Known as HICAP, the state-sponsored program provides free, one-on-one counseling for Medicare recipients: both seniors 65 or older and younger, disabled recipients.

"Our message is, with all the mail you're bombarded with, at least open those envelopes that come from the Medicare plan you currently have," said Reilly, whose office oversees 500,000 Medicare recipients in nine counties. "If people don't take action, they could be stuck in a plan they may not like or where they can't afford the premiums."

During this year's annual "open enrollment" season, Medicare recipients have until Dec. 7 to make changes to their health care and prescription drug plans for 2013. After that deadline, changes can't be made for another 12 months.

Normally, HICAP's phones are ringing off the hook this time of year, but Reilly said call volume is off by about half, which she attributes partly to the distraction and uncertainty of this week's national election.

With Election Day behind us, she's hoping Medicare recipients will start paying attention to possible changes in their plans.

For instance, some Medicare Advantage plans are leaving the local nine-county area or are consolidating and changing their names. Some plans are deleting doctors or certain prescription drugs. Other plans are posting "very big" monthly premium hikes for prescriptions, in some cases nearly doubling, Reilly said.

Also, Medicare officials recently sent letters to 525,000 recipients nationwide, warning that their current Medicare Advantage and Part D prescription drug providers had earned three years of poor ratings. The letters advised recipients to consider other providers.

Those plans, which are marked with a red warning sign on the Medicare.gov website, include two companies that offer prescription coverage plans in California: Central Health Plan of California and Pyramid Life Insurance Co. (which sells "Today's Options Premier" plans).

On the other hand, there's often no need to change your current Medicare plan if your doctors, prescriptions and premiums are what you need and can afford. In some cases, plans that appear cheaper may have unintended consequences, such as losing coverage of your under-age-65 spouse, Reilly noted.

"Medicare is very confusing Very bright people are struggling with the decisions they have to make," said Reilly.

Cathy DelChiaro and her husband are among them. The Sacramento couple, who run a family-owned business, are both nearing age 65 and need to make some Medicare choices.

"We're both college-educated and the process just seems mind-boggling. There should be an easier, better way," said DelChiaro, who's concerned the couple might not make the right selections.

Free help is available through the local HICAP office, which covers the nine counties of El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Sierra, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba. It operates 34 help centers from Auburn to Yuba City, often in senior centers, churches or Social Security offices.

To make an appointment for one-on-one Medicare counseling by phone or at a center, call (916) 376-8915 or visit: www.cahealthadvocates.org.

Statewide, HICAP offices in other counties can be found by calling (800) 434-0222.

When calling, it helps to have your Medicare card, the name of your current plan and a list of your medications.

Another good resource is Medicare.gov, the federal government's website. Using its "Medicare Plan Finder," you can type in your ZIP code to find comparisons of Medicare Advantage and Part D prescription drug plans, based on premium costs, doctors and medications.

Also, free Part D prescription drug counseling is available from University of the Pacific pharmacy school students on Sunday, Nov. 18, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church, 8181 Florin Road, in Sacramento. For an appointment, call (209) 965-7343.

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