By the end of this month, Safety Harbor resident Doug Pipes will have lunched at an Asian buffet one day and a steak house another day, listening to insurance agents pitch their products.
It's not about the food. Like other people on Medicare, Pipes faces the year-end dance known as open enrollment.
Two years ago, he chose an Optimum HMO to cover his health and prescription drug needs. He liked that it paid his Part B premium. But when Optimum dropped his personal physician from its network, he switched to Coventry for 2013.
Now Coventry is reducing its Part B premium rebate for 2014, so Pipes is looking around again.
"The important thing is staying with the doctor I have,'' he said. "I don't appreciate plans dropping my primary care doctor."
Staying abreast of Medicare options from year to year is critical, experts say. Both Part D drug plans (add-on plans offered by insurance and private companies approved by Medicare) and Medicare Advantage plans (a type of plan in which a private company contracts with Medicare to provide you all your coverage) change drug formularies and coverage options every year. Costs could fluctuate by hundreds of dollars, even if you stick with the same plan.
Even the biggest names in health care sometimes shift their offerings.
For example: Take AARP plans.
Last year, UnitedHealthcare and BayCare Health Systems engaged in protracted negotiations over compensation rates. Because UnitedHealthcare administers AARP's Medicare plans, hundreds of people dropped AARP, fearing they could lose access to some of Tampa Bay's most popular hospitals.
That dispute was eventually resolved. But as of January, AARP plans will now drop Moffitt Cancer Center, St. Luke's Cataract & Laser Institute and other providers from their HMO and PPO network.
Even if your Medicare plan uses your favorite doctors and hospitals, it's important to research your options before picking a plan for 2014. Many plans are forging relationships with "preferred pharmacies.'' Buying your drugs at the CVS a mile away could be hundreds of dollars cheaper or more expensive than buying them at the Walgreens across the street.
This issue of LifeTimes is designed to help you navigate these choices. The charts offer a general comparison of different plans, but that's just a start. Annual costs could differ dramatically from those shown on the charts, depending on the drugs you take and the services you use.
Medicare's online Plan Finder, detailed in an accompanying story, is more accurate. It estimates out-of-pocket costs based on the specific drugs you take and gives detailed information on nursing homes, ambulances and other services offered by plans.
You have until Dec. 7 to make your choice for next year.
Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8442.