Many people on Medicare maintain the same coverage from year to year — even when switching to a different option could save them considerable money.
But people who do evaluate their options don't mess around.
The average person who researches Medicare spends 22 hours reading brochures, talking to friends and otherwise gathering information, according to a recent survey by health insurance giant Humana.
Medicare's open enrollment period for 2014 ends Saturday. Most people who fail to pick coverage by then will get locked into their current coverage for another year.
The Humana survey reinforces how complex their choices can be — particularly when the health care marketplace is in such turmoil.
Hospitals and medical practices are forming new alliances. Insurance companies are compressing provider networks. The Obamacare marketplace — though it does not directly affect people on Medicare — has sown confusion. It has later enrollment deadlines, and they have changed due to the rollout problems.
But again — the Medicare deadline is Saturday.
According to Florida's SHINE program, many beneficiaries are still on the fence. Should they enroll in traditional Medicare or a managed care plan? Should they buy drug coverage? How about Medigap insurance to cover co-insurance?
SHINE, which stands for Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders, advises disabled and older people about these issues. With open enrollment ending in only a few days, calls "are still coming in at a steady pace,'' said Charles Franckle, Pinellas County coordinator. (Contact SHINE at 1-800-963-5337.)
Experts advise people on Medicare to research their options carefully each year. Managed care provider networks, drug coverage and out-of-pocket costs can change substantially from year to year. A plan that works well for you one year may turn out to be too expensive the next.
"There are so many different plans and options,'' Franckle said. "I've had a couple of people who thought they were all set and knew exactly what they wanted to do. Then they talked to a friend who gave them partial information and they call and are confused.''
SHINE's call volume spiked this time last year, when BayCare Health Systems temporarily broke network ties with UnitedHealthcare, the insurance company that administers popular AARP Medicare plans.
This year was more of the same, after UnitedHealthcare dropped hundreds of Tampa Bay doctors from AARP networks and discontinued relationships with popular institutions like Moffitt Cancer Center.
"Increased copayments, dropping doctors and the Moffitt thing were a big deal for some people,'' Franckle said.
In Humana's nationwide survey, 29 percent of women and 23 percent of men said they were overwhelmed by the selection process. They reported tapping into many sources before making a choice.
About 64 percent consulted literature provided by the federal government, mainly the annual "Medicare & You'' brochure.
About 30 percent got advice from friends, 25 percent from spouses and 25 percent from the ubiquitous fliers that insurance companies send out this time of year.
Only 14 percent said they took advice from their doctors.
The most common reason people changed coverage was to seek a higher quality of care, the survey said. Other key reasons: better price, better drug coverage and a desire to stay with a favored physician.
For all the hassle that open enrollment can entail, one survey question kept things in perspective.
People were asked what single thing they would most want someone to do for them if money were no object. Tops among the listed choices was "file my taxes,'' the favorite answer of 21 percent of respondents.
"Plan my Medicare coverage" was only half as popular, ranking below "Clean my bathroom for a week" and "Do my grocery shopping for a week.''
Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at email@example.com.