Healthy Choices

Seniors beware: Medicare scams heat up during open enrollment

As Medicare’s open enrollment season starts this week, the California attorney general’s office is warning seniors to be alert for scammers and dishonest insurance brokers attempting to steal personal information or pocket commissions on high-priced Medicare plans.

Medicare scams can take many forms, from callers trying to dupe seniors into giving up their Social Security numbers to “free lunch” or other enticements offered by unscrupulous insurance agents, trying to rack up commissions.

“Seniors should vigilantly ensure that they are not taken advantage of by Medicare scam artists who may misguide them, or attempt to obtain and misuse their personal information,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement Tuesday.

Starting Thursday and running through Dec. 7, Medicare’s annual open enrollment season allows seniors to change their Part C (Medicare Advantage) and Part D (prescription drug) plans. Not everyone needs to switch their current plan, but health and consumer groups urge seniors to review their plans, especially those with prescription drugs.

Because so many insurers change their drug formularies each year, some prescriptions may have jumped in price or no longer are carried. And premiums and out-of-pocket expenses for prescription drug coverage may jump as well. This week, a Kaiser Family Foundation report said average Medicare prescription drug premiums will increase 13 percent next year.

With the seven-week open enrollment season underway, the potential for scams grows.

“We always see scams increase this time of year,” said Margaret Reilly, program manager for the nine-county Health Insurance Counseling & Advocacy Program (HICAP), which provides free Medicare counseling in Northern California. “The scam artists know that seniors are bombarded with information this time of year (and) may not give callers as much scrutiny as they might otherwise. You have to be on guard.”

In some cases, aggressive insurance agents trying to sell Medicare plans knock on doors or drop off business cards, while others send unsolicited emails, said Micki Nozaki, project director of the California Senior Medicare Patrol, a federal volunteer program that works on fraud. Such tactics are not allowed under federal guidelines.

“It’s so easy to confuse people, especially with phone and email scams,” Nozaki said. Because of all the confusing terms and acronyms in health care, it’s “easy for someone to pull the wool over your eyes about something that sounds legitimate.”

Among the attorney general office’s tips for seniors:

▪ Never provide Social Security numbers or account information to callers who claim to be Medicare employees.

▪ Do not give out personal information to callers who claim to represent a doctor, hospital or health agency. If uncertain about a caller’s identity, hang up and directly contact the organization in question.

▪ Never allow into your home individuals posing as door-to-door sales representatives for Medicare.

▪ Be wary of offers to provide free medical exams or supplies. Dishonest companies may use these offers to fraudulently obtain your personal information.

▪ Be leery of marketing promotions where a free meal is offered in exchange for attending a presentation or signing up for a Medicare plan. Federal law prohibits free meals when marketing a Medicare health or drug plan; anyone making that offer should not be trusted.

▪ If a caller demands that billing information be provided online or by phone, refuse to provide it and request a bill by mail.

▪ If you encounter high-pressure sales tactics, do not make a decision until you can discuss it with a trusted friend or relative.

To report Medicare fraud, call 800-447-8477 or go to: StopMedicareFraud.gov. To get free Medicare counseling help in California, call HICAP at 800-434-0222.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

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