Medicare Premiums to Increase Slightly in 2021

Medicare premiums are set to rise a modest amount next year, but still cut into any Social Security gains. The basic monthly premium will increase $3.90, from $144.60 a month to $148.50.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the premium and other Medicare cost increases on November 6, 2020. The hike could have been much worse due to rising costs during the coronavirus pandemic, but the bipartisan budget bill passed in October capped the increase. While the majority of beneficiaries will pay the added amount, a “hold harmless” rule prevents Medicare recipients’ premiums from increasing more than Social Security benefits, which are going up only 1.3 percent in 2021. This “hold harmless” provision does not apply to Medicare beneficiaries who are enrolled in Medicare but who are not yet receiving Social Security, new Medicare beneficiaries, seniors earning more than $88,000 a year, and “dual eligibles” who get both Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

Meanwhile, the Part B deductible will rise from $198 to $203 in 2021, while the Part A deductible will go up by $76, to $1,484. For beneficiaries receiving skilled care in a nursing home, Medicare’s coinsurance for days 21-100 will increase from $176 to $185.50. Medicare coverage ends after day 100.

Here are all the new Medicare payment figures:
•    Part B premium: $148.50 (was $144.60)
•    Part B deductible: $203 (was $198)
•    Part A deductible: $1,484 (was $1,408)
•    Co-payment for hospital stay days 61-90: $371/day (was $352)
•    Co-payment for hospital stay days 91 and beyond: $742/day (was $704)
•    Skilled nursing facility co-payment, days 21-100: $185.50/day (was $176)

So-called “Medigap” policies can cover some of these costs.

Premiums for higher-income beneficiaries ($88,000 and above) are as follows:

  • Individuals with annual incomes between $88,000 and $111,000 and married couples with annual incomes between $176,000 and $222,000 will pay a monthly premium of $207.90.
  • Individuals with annual incomes between $111,000 and $138,000 and married couples with annual incomes between $222,000 and $276,000 will pay a monthly premium of $297.
  • Individuals with annual incomes between $138,000 and $165,000 and married couples with annual incomes between $276,000 and $330,000 will pay a monthly premium of $386.10.
  • Individuals with annual incomes above $165,000 and less than $500,000 and married couples with annual incomes above $330,000 and less than $750,000 will pay a monthly premium of $475.20.
  • Individuals with annual incomes above $500,000 and married couples with annual incomes above $750,000 will pay a monthly premium of $504.90.

Rates differ for beneficiaries who are married but file a separate tax return from their spouse. Those with incomes greater than $88,000 and less than $412,000 will pay a monthly premium of $475.20. Those with incomes greater than $412,000 will pay a monthly premium of $504.90.

The Social Security Administration uses the income reported two years ago to determine a Part B beneficiary’s premium. So the income reported on a beneficiary’s 2019 tax return is used to determine whether the beneficiary must pay a higher monthly Part B premium in 2021. Income is calculated by taking a beneficiary’s adjusted gross income and adding back in some normally excluded income, such as tax-exempt interest, U.S. savings bond interest used to pay tuition, and certain income from foreign sources. This is called modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). If a beneficiary’s MAGI decreased significantly in the past two years, she may request that information from more recent years be used to calculate the premium. You can also request to reverse a surcharge if your income changes.

Those who enroll in Medicare Advantage plans may have different cost-sharing arrangements. CMS estimates that the Medicare Advantage average monthly premium will decrease by 11 percent in 2021, from an average of $23.63 in 2020 to $21 in 2021.

Medicare Beneficiaries May Be Eligible for an Extra 100 days of Skilled Nursing Coverage Due to Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly devastating for nursing homes and their residents. Aside from the tragically disproportionate loss of life, care for surviving residents has been delayed or interrupted due to infection, facility lockdowns or other health system disruptions. In such cases, Medicare beneficiaries who qualified for skilled nursing facility (SNF) coverage may be eligible for an additional 100 days of coverage. Whether all qualified beneficiaries will actually get the extended coverage is another question.

Medicare does not pay for long-term care, just for “medical” care from a doctor or other health care professional or in a hospital. But there’s a partial exception to this rule. Medicare will pay for up to 100 days of care per “spell of illness” in an SNF as long as the following two requirements are met:

1. Your move to an SNF followed a hospitalization of at least three days; and

2. You need and will be receiving skilled care.

After the 100 days of coverage ends, a new spell of illness can begin if the patient has not received skilled care, either in an SNF or a hospital, for a period of 60 consecutive days. The patient can remain in the SNF and still qualify as long as he or she does not receive a skilled level of care, but only custodial care, during that 60 days.

Following the declaration of a public health emergency this spring, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a letter granting a waiver to allow Medicare beneficiaries coverage for an additional 100 days in an SNF, without satisfying the new spell of illness requirement, in certain COVID-19 related circumstances. The letter stated that the policy will apply only to skilled-care beneficiaries whose process of care was interrupted by the public health emergency. (The letter also waived the three-days-in-a-hospital rule in certain cases.)

Six months after that letter, however, there is still confusion about which COVID-19 related circumstances qualify for the waiver. Importantly, according to the Center for Medicare Advocacy, CMS recently confirmed that beneficiaries do not necessarily have to have a COVID-19 diagnosis to qualify for the additional 100 days of coverage. Rather, as described by Skilled Nursing News, “[t]he question is whether the emergency situation interrupted the patient’s path to 60 consecutive days of non-skilled, custodial care.”

In an August 26, 2020, memorandum, CMS attempted to clarify how it would determine whether a disruption in care was related to the public health emergency: “This determination basically involves comparing the course of treatment that the beneficiary has actually received to what would have been furnished absent the emergency. Unless the two are exactly the same, the provider would determine that the treatment has been affected by – and, therefore, is related to – the emergency.”

However, in some cases, nursing homes do not understand how the waiver applies or are not inclined to help patients with a waiver application. The Center for Medicare Advocacy offers a detailed case example of an individual who appears to meet the criteria for additional Medicare coverage but who has encountered multiple barriers in getting it.

In addition to confusion over who qualifies for the extended coverage, the Center for Medicare Advocacy has found that the “waiver that extends SNF benefits by up to 100 days does not appear to afford beneficiaries the same rights as the first 100 days of statutory coverage,” including rights to appeal coverage denials. The Center reports that it “has received an increasing number of requests for guidance on expanded Medicare coverage in skilled nursing facilities.” In response, the organization has compiled self-help materials to assist beneficiaries and their advocates.

The Center is asking those with experiences pursuing coverage under the public health emergency rules, waivers, or guidance to contact it at Communications@MedicareAdvocacy.org

Medicare Open Enrollment Starts October 15: Is It Time to Change Plans?

Medicare’s Open Enrollment Period, during which you can freely enroll in or switch plans, runs from October 15 to December 7. Now is the time to start shopping around to see whether your current choices are still the best ones for you.

During this period you may enroll in a Medicare Part D (prescription drug) plan or, if you currently have a plan, you may change plans. In addition, during the seven-week period you can return to traditional Medicare (Parts A and B) from a Medicare Advantage (Part C, managed care) plan, enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan, or change Advantage plans.

Beneficiaries can go to www.medicare.gov or call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to make changes in their Medicare prescription drug and health plan coverage.

According to the New York Times, few Medicare beneficiaries take advantage of Open Enrollment, but of those who do, nearly half cut their premiums by at least 5 percent. Even beneficiaries who have been satisfied with their plans in 2020 should review their choices for 2021, as both premiums and plan coverage can fluctuate from year to year. Are the doctors you use still part of your Medicare Advantage plan’s provider network? Have any of the prescriptions you take been dropped from your prescription plan’s list of covered drugs (the “formulary”)? Could you save money with the same coverage by switching to a different plan?

For answers to questions like these, carefully look over the plan’s “Annual Notice of Change” letter to you. Prescription drug plans can change their premiums, deductibles, the list of drugs they cover, and their plan rules for covered drugs, exceptions, and appeals. Medicare Advantage plans can change their benefit packages, as well as their provider networks.

Remember that fraud perpetrators will inevitably use the Open Enrollment Period to try to gain access to individuals’ personal financial information. Medicare beneficiaries should never give their personal information out to anyone making unsolicited phone calls selling Medicare-related products or services or showing up on their doorstep uninvited. If you think you’ve been a victim of fraud or identity theft, contact Medicare.

Here are more resources for navigating the Open Enrollment Period:

  • Medicare Plan Finder, which helps you find a plan to match your needs: www.medicare.gov/find-a-plan
  • Medicare coverage options: https://www.medicare.gov/medicarecoverageoptions/
  • The 2020 Medicare & You handbook, which all Medicare beneficiaries should have received. The handbook can also be downloaded online at: medicare.gov/forms-help-resources/medicare-you-handbook/download-medicare-you-in-different-formats
  • The Medicare Rights Center: www.medicareinteractive.org
  • Your State Health Insurance Assistance Program, which offers independent counseling: https://www.shiptacenter.org

Can You Transfer Your Medicare and Medicaid Plans When You Move to Another State?

If you plan to move states, can you take your Medicare or Medicaid plans with you? The answer depends on whether you have original Medicare, Medicare Advantage, or Medicaid.

Medicare
If you have original Medicare (Plans A and B), you can move anywhere in the country and you should still be covered. Medicare is a federal program, run by the federal government, so it doesn’t matter what state you are in as long as your provider accepts Medicare. Your Medigap plan should also continue to cover you in the new state, but your premiums may change when you move. The exception is if you move to Massachusetts, Minnesota, or Wisconsin because those states have their own specific Medigap plans.

Both Medicare Part D (prescription drug coverage) and Medicare Advantage plans have defined service areas, which may or may not cover more than one state. If you have Part D or Medicare Advantage, you will need to determine if your new address falls within the plan’s service area. When you move to a new service area, you have a special enrollment period in which to change plans outside of the annual open enrollment period (which runs October 15th through December 7th). If you tell your current plan before you move, your special enrollment period begins the month before you move and continues for two full months after you move. If you tell your plan after you move, your chance to switch plans begins the month you tell your plan, plus two more full months.

Medicaid
Medicaid is a joint federal and state program, with each state having its own eligibility rules. This means you cannot keep your Medicaid plan when you move to a new state. Medicaid eligibility depends on your income, your assets, and the level of care you need. If you have Medicaid and are planning to move, you should contact the Medicaid office in the state to which you are moving to find out the eligibility requirements in that state. Before you can apply for benefits in the new state, you need to cancel your benefits in the old state. You should file an application in the new state as soon as possible. Usually, if you qualify for benefits, the benefits will be retroactive up to three months before the date you applied. If you end up having to pay for any health care services out of pocket while you are waiting for your application to be approved, save the receipts since you may be able to get reimbursed.

When Buying a Medigap Policy, It Really Pays to Shop Around

Medigap policies that supplement Medicare’s basic coverage can cost vastly different amounts, depending on the company selling the policy, according to a new study. The findings highlight the importance of shopping around before purchasing a policy.

When you first become eligible for Medicare, you may purchase a Medigap policy from a private insurer to supplement Medicare’s coverage and plug some or virtually all of Medicare’s coverage gaps. You can currently choose one of eight Medigap plans that are identified by letters A, B, D, G, K, L, M, and N (If you were eligible for Medicare before January 1, 2020, but not enrolled, you may also be able to purchase Plans C and F, but those plans  are no longer available to people who are newly eligible for Medicare). Each plan package offers a different menu of benefits, allowing purchasers to choose the combination that is right for them.

While federal law requires that insurers must offer the same benefits for each lettered plan–each plan G offered by one insurer must cover the same benefits as plan G offered by another insurer–insurers set their own prices for each plan. This means that the price of each plan varies considerably depending on the insurance company.

The American Association for Medicare Supplement Insurance compared costs of plans in the top 10 metro areas and found huge cost differences. Using the most popular plan–Plan G–for comparison, the association found that in Dallas the lowest price for a 65-year-old woman to purchase a plan was $99 a month while the highest price was $381 a month. This is a yearly difference of more than $3,000 for the exact same plan.

The association also found that no one company consistently offered the lowest or highest price. In their study, investigators discovered that 13 different companies had either the lowest or highest price. This means you can’t rely on just one company to always have the better price.

When looking for a Medigap policy, make sure to get quotes from several insurance companies. In addition, if you are going through a broker, check with two or more brokers because one broker might not represent every insurer. It can be hard work to shop around, but the price savings can be worth it.

Medicare and Medicaid Will Cover Coronavirus Testing

With coronavirus dominating news coverage and creating alarm, it is important to know that Medicare and Medicaid will cover tests for the virus.

The department of Health and Human Services has designated the test for the new strain of coronavirus (officially called COVID-19) an essential health benefit. This designation means that Medicare and Medicaid will cover testing of beneficiaries who are suspected of having the virus. In order to be covered, a doctor or other health care provider must order the test. All tests on or after February 4, 2020 are covered, although your provider will need to wait until after April 1, 2020, to be able to submit a claim to Medicare for the test.

Congress has also passed an $8.3 billion emergency funding bill to help federal agencies respond to the outbreak. The funding will provide federal agencies with money to develop tests and treatment options as well as help local governments deal with outbreaks.

As always, to prevent the spread of this illness or other illnesses, including the flu, take the following precautions:
•    Wash your hands often with soap and water
•    Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
•    Stay home when you’re sick
•    See your doctor if you think you’re ill

For Medicare’s notice about coverage for the coronavirus, click here.

Medicare is Expanding Telehealth Services During Coronavirus Pandemic

As part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government is broadly expanding coverage of Medicare telehealth services to beneficiaries and relaxing HIPAA enforcement. This will give doctors the ability to provide more services to patients remotely.

Medicare covers telehealth services that include office visits, psychotherapy, and consultations provided by an eligible provider who isn’t at your location using an interactive two-way telecommunications system (like real-time audio and video). Normally, these services are available only in rural areas, under certain conditions, and only if you’re located at one of these places:

  • A doctor’s office
  • A hospital
  • A critical access hospital (CAH)
  • A rural health clinic
  • A federally qualified health center
  • A hospital-based dialysis facility
  • A skilled nursing facility
  • A community mental health center

Under the new expansion, Medicare will now pay for office, hospital, and other visits provided via telehealth in the patient’s home. Doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers will all be able to offer a variety of telehealth services to their patients, including evaluation and management visits, mental health counseling, and preventive health screenings. In addition, relaxed HIPAA enforcement (the law governing patient privacy) means doctors may use technologies like Skype and Facetime to talk to patients as well as using the phone.

In addition to Medicare’s expansion, states are also allowing doctors to provide telehealth services to Medicaid beneficiaries. For example, New York will now cover telephone-based evaluations when an in-person visit is not medically recommended. Many other states are following suit.

This expansion of telehealth services will allow older adults who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 to stay home and still get medical advice. If you need to see a medical provider during this health emergency, check to see whether they are employing telehealth services. To use telehealth services, you need to verbally consent and your doctor must document that consent in your medical record. For information from AARP on what you might expect during a virtual doctor’s visit, click here.

Don’t Let Medicare Open Enrollment Go By Without Reassessing Your Options

Medicare’s Open Enrollment Period, during which you can freely enroll in or switch plans, runs from October 15 to December 7. Don’t let this period slip by without shopping around to see whether your current choices are the best ones for you.

During this period you may enroll in a Medicare Part D (prescription drug) plan or, if you currently have a plan, you may change plans. In addition, during the seven-week period you can return to traditional Medicare (Parts A and B) from a Medicare Advantage (Part C, managed care) plan, enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan, or change Advantage plans. Beneficiaries can go to www.medicare.gov or call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to make changes in their Medicare prescription drug and health plan coverage.

According to the New York Times, few Medicare beneficiaries take advantage of open enrollment, but of those that do, nearly half cut their premiums by at least 5 percent. Even beneficiaries who have been satisfied with their plans in 2019 should review their choices for 2020, as both premiums and plan coverage can fluctuate from year to year. Are the doctors you use still part of your Medicare Advantage plan’s provider network? Have any of the prescriptions you take been dropped from your prescription plan’s list of covered drugs (the “formulary”)? Could you save money with the same coverage by switching to a different plan?

For answers to questions like these, carefully look over the plan’s “Annual Notice of Change” letter to you. Prescription drug plans can change their premiums, deductibles, the list of drugs they cover, and their plan rules for covered drugs, exceptions, and appeals. Medicare Advantage plans can change their benefit packages, as well as their provider networks.

Remember that fraud perpetrators will inevitably use the Open Enrollment Period to try to gain access to individuals’ personal financial information. Medicare beneficiaries should never give their personal information out to anyone making unsolicited phone calls selling Medicare-related products or services or showing up on their doorstep uninvited. If you think you’ve been a victim of fraud or identity theft, contact Medicare.

Here are more resources for navigating the Open Enrollment Period:

  • Medicare Plan Finder, which helps you find a plan to match your needs: www.medicare.gov/find-a-plan
  • Medicare coverage options: https://www.medicare.gov/medicarecoverageoptions/
  • The 2020 Medicare & You handbook, which all Medicare beneficiaries should have received. The handbook can also be downloaded online at:  medicare.gov/forms-help-resources/medicare-you-handbook/download-medicare-you-in-different-formats
  • The Medicare Rights Center: www.medicareinteractive.org
  • Your State Health Insurance Assistance Program, which offers independent counseling: https://www.shiptacenter.org

New Rule May Make It Harder for Medicare Beneficiaries to Receive Home Care

It may become harder for Medicare beneficiaries to find home health care due to a new rule from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Although the rule changes the way home health care providers are reimbursed, it could affect patient care as well.

Starting in January 2020, Medicare will reimburse home health agencies at a lower rate when they care for patients who have not been admitted to a hospital first. CMS estimates that it will pay home health agencies approximately 19 percent more for a patient who hires the home health agency directly after leaving a hospital than a patient who was never in the hospital or was only an outpatient.  (The Center for Medicare Advocacy calculates that the disparity could be as high as 25 percent.)

In part due to pressure from Medicare to reduce costly inpatient stays, hospitals often do not admit patients, but rather place them on observation status to determine whether they should be admitted. These patients, if not admitted to the hospital for at least three nights, are not eligible for Medicare reimbursement of a limited amount of skilled nursing care and typically head home instead to continue care with Medicare’s home health care benefit.

But a home health agency that cares for a patient who was in the hospital under observation will be reimbursed as if the patient had been an outpatient. This lower reimbursement rate means that home health agencies may be reluctant to provide care for patients who were under observation status or who haven’t been in a hospital at all.

If you are hospitalized, it is important to learn whether you are admitted or under observation. Hospitals are required to provide notice to patients if they are under observation for more than 24 hours.

For more information about the new rule from the Center for Medicare Advocacy, click here.

Medicare Launches App to Help Beneficiaries Find Out What’s Covered

At the doctor’s office and want to know if a procedure is covered by Medicare? There is an app for that. Medicare has launched a free app that gives beneficiaries a quick way to see whether the program covers a specific medical item or service.

The “What’s Covered” app allows you to search or browse to learn what’s covered and not covered under Medicare Parts A and B, how and when to get covered benefits, basic cost information and other eligibility details. You can also see a list of covered preventive services. The app does not give results for extra benefits that Medicare Advantage plans may cover but that Original Medicare does not, such as certain vision, hearing or dental benefits.

Examples of the types of questions the app can answer include:

  • When are mammograms covered?
  • Is home health care covered?
  • Will Medicare pay for diabetes supplies?
  • Can I get a regular cervical cancer screening?
  • Will my Medicare benefits cover a service to help me stop smoking?

Although the app provides beneficiaries with basic information, it doesn’t provide personalized information. It doesn’t ask details about each user’s specific insurance information, so it doesn’t take into account the user’s supplemental insurance, co-insurance, and deductibles. Essentially, the app provides another way for Medicare beneficiaries to get the same information that is available online and in the Medicare handbook.

The app is part of an initiative by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) focused on modernizing Medicare and empowering beneficiaries. Other initiatives include:

  • Enhanced interactive online decision support to help beneficiaries better understand and evaluate the coverage options and costs of original Medicare compared to Medicare Advantage plans.
  • New price transparency tools that let consumers compare the national average costs of certain procedures between settings, so people can see what they’ll pay for procedures done in a hospital outpatient department versus an ambulatory surgical center.
  • A new webchat option in the Medicare Plan Finder.
  • New easy-to-use surveys across Medicare.gov so consumers can tell CMS what they want.

To get the new “What’s Covered” app, go here: https://www.medicare.gov/blog/whats-covered-mobile-app.