Shopping for Medicare Advantage: 6 Pitfalls to Avoid
From picking a plan for the perks to not checking next year’s network, here are some traps it’s easy to fall into while shopping for Medicare Advantage.
By Kate Ashford, Updated Oct. 2, 2023
Only 3 in 10 Medicare beneficiaries shop around during open enrollment, according to a 2022 analysis from KFF, a health policy nonprofit — and only 1 in 10 Medicare Advantage enrollees voluntarily switch plans. However, a 2020 analysis of Medicare Advantage plan choices by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that more than half of beneficiaries overspent by more than $1,000 due to the plan they selected.
Medicare open enrollment is from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, giving people with Medicare a chance to change plans for the upcoming year. Although potential Medicare Advantage enrollees may be swayed by $0 premiums and extra perks like vision and dental coverage, there are more important features to explore when you’re choosing next year’s coverage.
Here are some practices to avoid as you shop for Medicare Advantage this fall.
1. Thinking Medicare Advantage is Medicare
If you’re considering Medicare Advantage, understand that it’s not the same thing as government-provided Medicare. It offers the same benefits, but private health insurance companies run Medicare Advantage and it operates differently.
“You are essentially taking the Medicare coverage that you’ve been provided by the government and turning that in,” says Melinda Caughill, co-founder and CEO of 65 Incorporated, which offers Medicare guidance.
You can switch back to Original Medicare during each year’s open enrollment period, but you may not be able to qualify for an affordable Medicare Supplement Insurance, or Medigap, plan once you’re past the one-time Medigap open enrollment period. (Medigap helps with certain out-of-pocket costs not covered by Original Medicare.)
2. Assuming your doctors are in network
Medicare Advantage plans operate within networks of medical providers, and you usually must see in-network doctors for covered care.
“A lot of people don’t realize that — especially those $0-premium plans — they tend to have fairly confined networks,” says Emily Gang, CEO of the Medicare Coach, a site that provides Medicare guidance. “You want to double-check that your doctor is actually an approved provider in that network.”
Ask your providers what insurance they’ll be accepting in 2024, suggests Sarah Murdoch, director of client services for the Medicare Rights Center, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. It’s easier than trying to check each plan’s network individually.
3. Not checking your drug coverage
Like network providers, Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage can also change each year. Your drug plan might cover one of your medications differently in 2024, leaving you with more out-of-pocket costs than you expected.
“If you take even one brand name medication, your need to compare plans is incredibly high,” Caughill says. No brand names on your list? Shop around if you take five or more medications in general.
4. Buying for the dental benefits
Medicare Advantage plans usually include benefits that aren’t part of Original Medicare, such as dental, vision or hearing coverage. These extras may be appealing, but don’t let them steer your plan choice.
“First of all, it’s health insurance — so how is it going to cover your health care providers and your medications?” says Katy Votava, who holds a doctorate in health economics and nursing and is president and founder of Goodcare, a consulting firm focused on the economics of Medicare. “If you pick [your plan] for a benefit that isn’t health insurance, you’re often picking wrong. And the dental benefit is pretty limited in all these plans — it’s a couple of cleanings and some bitewings.”
5. Looking at the premium only
The majority of Medicare Advantage enrollees are in plans with no premium, meaning you pay nothing each month for the plan. “People see that $0 premium and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s free,’” Gang says. “And it’s not.”
Research the rest of the plan’s costs before you sign up, including deductibles, copays, coinsurance and the out-of-pocket maximum, which is the most you might have to spend on covered care in a year. In 2023, the out-of-pocket max can be as high as $8,300 for in-network care.
6. Buying because your friend has it
People eligible for Medicare are bombarded by information during open enrollment, and it can be overwhelming. “They don’t shop,” Votava says. “They go with name recognition or what their friend has.”
The better choice: Focus on your own situation and find the plan that meets your needs.
If you need help, contact your State Health Insurance Assistance Program, or SHIP, for free Medicare guidance. Just don’t wait until the last minute, because appointments fill up, Votava says. “If you need individual help, you’d better get on the list.”
NerdWallet wrote this article and was originally published by The Associated Press.