Plastic pumpkins adorn public places, with Salvation Army buckets not far behind. It's time for people on Medicare to pick health coverage for next year.
Choosing the right drug plan or health plan can save people hundreds of dollars. Choosing the wrong plan can land them in a hospital they don't like, treated by a doctor they don't know.
Unfortunately, there is no easy route to finding the best coverage. Too much depends on individual financial and health needs.
Here are some basics with which to start your research:
Why must I choose now?
Medicare has an "open enrollment'' period, which began Monday and ends Dec. 7. If you don't affirmatively choose your coverage for 2013, Medicare will simply renew your current coverage.
What's wrong with that? I like my current coverage.
You are not alone. Some estimates indicate that 90 percent of Medicare's beneficiaries simply renew existing plans from year to year. But that can be a mistake. Other plans might save you hundreds of dollars. Both "Medicare Advantage" health plans and "Part D" prescription drug plans that accompany traditional Medicare change their provisions every year. Your plan could drop your doctor from their network. Or it could drop one or more of your important drugs from their formulary, leaving you to pay retail prices. It's always best to research options every year.
How should I go about picking a plan?
The best guide is Medicare's online Plan Finder at www.medicare.gov. You enter your health status and list all your prescription drugs and the computer estimates your annual out-of-pocket costs under each plan. This is important. Many people are attracted by cheap monthly premiums or whether a plan actually sends them a check every month. But if a plan skimps on covering the specific drugs you take, you could be out thousands of dollars by year's end. The Plan Finder also rates insurance companies that offer drug and health plans, flagging those that have given consistently poor service.
What if I don't like using computers?
Florida has a service called SHINE, trained volunteers who can advise you about types of plans tailored to your needs and wants. They can go on Medicare's web site for you. You can reach SHINE through the Senior Helpline, 1-800-963-5337. Before you call, make a list of all your prescription drugs, dosages and how often you take them, so the volunteer can quickly research plans for you. If you get a recording, leave a message that you want help with Medicare and a volunteer will call you back.
In past years the Tampa Bay Times has published a special Medicare section about different plans. Will that be available this year?
Yes. It will appear in the Oct. 24 edition of LifeTimes, That still gives you six weeks to do your homework and pick your coverage. The section outlines provisions of various plans, such as premium, network size and doctor co-payments. But we cannot give a cost estimate, which varies widely depending on your drug usage. Only the Plan Finder can do that.