Medicare open enrollment thru Dec. 7

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It’s time for your annual checkup — of your Medicare plan.  Medicare’s annual open enrollment period started Oct. 15 and runs through Dec. 7. This is the time of year you can make changes to your plans.

Review your current Medicare Part D Prescription Drug and, if you have it, your Medicare Part C Advantage Plan coverage to see if you can lower your costs or find a plan that better suits your needs.

Even if you’re happy with your current coverage, you might find something that’s a better fit. If you miss the open enrollment deadline, then you’ll most likely have to wait a full year before you can make changes to your plan. 

Here are five important things to do this month:

1. Review your plan notice.

Be sure to read any notices from your Medicare plan about changes for 2017, especially your “Annual Notice of Change” letter. Look at your plan’s information to make sure your drugs are still covered and your doctors are still in network.

2. Think about what matters most to you.

Medicare health and drug plans change each year, and so can your health needs.

Do you need a new primary care doctor? Does your network include the specialist you want for an upcoming surgery? Is your new medication covered by your current plan? Does another plan offer the same value at a lower cost? Take stock of your health status and determine if you need to make a change.

3. Find out if you qualify for help paying for your Medicare.

If you have limited income and resources, you may qualify for the Extra Help program to pay for some healthcare and prescription drug costs. Drug costs this year for most people who qualify for Extra Help are no more than $2.95 for each generic drug and $7.40 for each brand-name drug.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services estimates that more than 2 million people with Medicare may be eligible for Extra Help, but aren’t currently enrolled to take advantage of these savings.

To qualify, you must make less than $17,655 a year (or $23,895 for married couples). Even if your annual income is higher, you may still qualify for some extra help. Your resources must also be limited to $13,640 (or $27,250 for married couples). Resources include bank accounts, stocks and bonds, but not your house or car.

A recent law changed how your income and assets are counted:

• Life insurance policies don’t count as a resource.

• Any help you get from relatives, friends and others to pay for household expenses — like food, mortgage, rent, heating fuel or gas, electricity, water and property taxes — doesn’t count as income.

Even if you were previously turned down for Extra Help due to income or resource levels, you should reapply. If you qualify, you’ll get help paying for Medicare prescription drug coverage premiums, copayments and deductibles.

It’s easy and free to apply for “Extra Help.” You, a family member, trusted counselor, or caregiver can apply online at https://secure.ssa.gov/i1020/start, or call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213. TTY users should call 1-800-325-0778.

4. Shop for plans that meet your needs and fit your budget.

Use Medicare’s plan finder tool at www.Medicare.gov/find-a-plan to see what other plans are offered in your area. A new plan may cost less, cover your specific drugs, and include providers you want, like your doctor or pharmacy. If you find that your current coverage still meets your needs, then you’re done.

Remember, during Medicare Open Enrollment, you can decide to stay in Original Medicare or join a Medicare Advantage Plan. If you’re already in a Medicare Advantage Plan, you can switch back to Original Medicare.

5. Check your plan’s star rating before you enroll.

The Medicare Plan Finder has been updated with the 2016 Star Ratings for Medicare health and prescription drug plans. Plans are given an overall quality rating on a 1 to 5 star scale — with 1 star representing poor performance and 5 stars representing excellent performance. Use the Star Ratings to compare the quality of health and drug plans being offered.

For more information, call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227). TTY users should call 1-877-486-2048. Help is available 24 hours a day, including weekends. Language support in Spanish is offered.

You can get assistance with your decision through the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP). There is a SHIP located within your local Area Agency on Aging in every county.

Trained counselors are available to provide free, unbiased one-on-one assistance. Learn the facts, discuss options, and get help with completing forms and making online comparisons.

Many counties require advance appointments during open enrollment, so call early, and look for opportunities for group community presentations.

Contact the SHIP office for your county:

Anne Arundel County: (410) 222-4464

Baltimore City: (410) 396-2273

Baltimore County: (410) 887-2059

Howard County: (410) 313-7392

— Courtesy of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services