Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

New, earlier deadline to pick Medicare health insurance plans

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 — — 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.

New, earlier deadline to pick Medicare health insurance plans 10/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 14, 2011 10:06pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays DFA Danny Farquhar to make room for Brad Boxberger


    The Rays continued shuffling their bullpen, dumping RHP Danny Farquhar after Wednesday's game to make room for RHP Brad Boxberger to be activated off the DL.

    Farquhar, who worked an inning in Wednesday's 6-2 loss, had a 2-2, 4.11 record for 37 appearances, working primarily in lower leverage situations. In …

  2. USF to face Indiana in men's basketball next season


    The USF men's basketball team will get an early test from a Big Ten powerhouse next season.

  3. Rays employee helps save suicidal woman near Pirates stadium


    A Rays front-office employee joined umpire John Tumpane in saving a woman threatening to jump from a bridge near PNC Park on Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh.

    Multimedia production manager Mike Weinman, 32, was walking across the Roberto Clemente Bridge with Rays broadcasting director Larry McCabe when he …

  4. Blake Snell struggles in return as Rays fall to Pirates

    The Heater


    Blake Snell talked a good game ahead of his return to the Rays rotation Wednesday night, but he didn't pitch one.

    The Pirates’ David Freese scores on a Blake Snell wild pitch during the first inning against the Rays.
  5. College World Series title puts Florida Gators in elite company


    The Florida Gators put themselves in rare company with Tuesday night's College World Series national championship victory.

    Florida ace and Tampa native Alex Faedo (21) lets loose with his teammates after they win the Gators’ first baseball national title.