Attention Medicare slackers: This is not the year for procrastination.
Medicare's open enrollment period — when people choose their coverage for the following year — starts today.
In the past, people on Medicare had until Dec. 31 to plow through a bevy of drug plans, HMOs and other insurance options.
But Washington accelerated this year's deadlines. People must pick their 2012 coverage between today and Dec. 7, or the government will reassign them to their current plan.
"We're telling people to get this done by Thanksgiving,'' Joe Baker, president of the Medicare Rights Center said Friday. "Most folks remember that they could pick plans by Christmas. But Christmas is too late. Do your research early, before you get wrapped up in the holiday season.''
Most people on Medicare just keep the same coverage from year to year, but that can be an expensive mistake, Baker said. Insurance plans change their provisions every year. A prescription drug that costs $10 a month one year might cost $45 the next.
Premiums can rise or fall hundreds of dollars a year.
"It can be a hassle to do the research,'' Baker said, "but it's an important hassle, and then you are set for the rest of the year.''
More than 3 million older and disabled Floridians depend on Medicare to pay for doctors, hospitals, drugs and other health services.
A few benefits will improve in 2012. Plans will have to offer a 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs in Medicare's so-called "doughnut hole."
Certain preventative services will be free, including wellness visits to the doctor, some cancer screening and bone density tests.
Original Medicare —- the one run by the government — is often the expensive route, but it allows people to choose their doctor, hospitals and other providers without restrictions, which can be quite reassuring if you want treatment at a specialty cancer center, at an outpatient clinic back in Michigan or from your favorite doctor.
Prescription drug plans that complement original Medicare can go for as little as $15.10 a month in 2012 and can knock hundreds of dollars off the retail cost of drugs.
Private insurance companies — subsidized by Medicare — can often reduce costs for health and drug coverage. Some plans even rebate part of Medicare's monthly premium.
The trade-off is that private plans usually require you to get service within a network or charge a stiff premium for getting care outside their network. This can be a problem for snowbirds or others who want unlimited access to providers.
Sorting through options can take hours. Tampa Bay residents can pick from 33 drug plans and 30 to 40 private health plans.
Some people opt for a name they recognize. Others just grab a plan with low up-front cost — like those that offer rebates.
Neither strategy is good, says Baker, of the Medicare Rights Center. A familiar policy can trade on its name and cost more without significant additional benefits. A policy that seems inexpensive up-front may offer less coverage and end up costing you a bundle if you get sick.
"Don't just shop on price, and don't just shop on name,'' he said.
Medicare's website — medicare.gov — has a comprehensive tool for researching different plans. You enter your specific drugs and health condition, and the website estimates your out-of-pocket cost under each plan.
The website also lets you research benefits of different plans without having to call each one individually.
Count on spending at least an hour, but it's well worth it. Estimated cost differences between plans can top $3,000.
For people uncomfortable with computers, the state of Florida has trained volunteers who can do it for you, as well as answer questions. Call the Senior Help Line toll-free at 1-800-963-5337 and ask for a SHINE volunteer. Most likely, you will have to leave your name so they can call you back.
You can also call Medicare's national help line toll-free at 1-800-633-4227.