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.

Medicare Beneficiaries Need to Know the Difference Between a Wellness Visit and a Physical

Medicare covers preventative care services, including an annual wellness visit. But confusing a wellness visit with a physical could be very costly.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare beneficiaries receive a free annual wellness visit. At this visit, your doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant will generally do the following:

  • Ask you to fill out a health risk assessment questionnaire
  • Update your medical history and current prescriptions
  • Measure your height, weight, blood pressure and body mass index
  • Provide personalized health advice
  • Create a screening schedule for the next 5 to 10 years
  • Screen for cognitive issues

You do not have to pay a deductible for this visit. You may also receive other free preventative services, such as a flu shot.

The confusion arises when a Medicare beneficiary requests an “annual physical” instead of an “annual wellness visit.” During a physical, a doctor may do other tests that are outside of an annual wellness visit, such as check vital signs, perform lung or abdominal exams, test your reflexes, or order urine and blood samples. These services are not offered for free and Medicare beneficiaries will have to pay co-pays and deductibles when they receive a physical. Kaiser Health News recently related the story of a Medicare recipient who had what she assumed was a free physical only to get a $400 bill from her doctor’s office.

Adding to the confusion is that when you first enroll, Medicare covers a “welcome to Medicare” visit with your doctor. To avoid co-pays and deductibles, you need to schedule it within the first 12 months of enrolling in Medicare Part B. The visit covers the same things as the annual wellness visit, but it also covers screenings and flu shots, a vision test, review of risk for depression, the option of creating advance directives, and a written plan, letting you know which screenings, shots, and other preventative services you should get.

To avoid receiving a bill for an annual visit, when you contact your doctor’s office to schedule the appointment, be sure to request an “annual wellness visit” instead of asking for a “physical.” The difference in wording can save you hundreds of dollars. In addition, some Medicare Advantage plans offer a free annual physical, so check with your plan if you are enrolled in one before scheduling.

Costs of New Long-Term Care Insurance Policies Vary Considerably

We’ve all heard the advice “It pays to shop around,” but this has never been more true than with the current market for long-term care insurance.

According to the latest industry figures, the spread between the lowest and highest cost for virtually identical coverage was as high as 243 percent.  “This is the largest spread I can recall in recent years,” said Jesse Slome, director of the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance (AALTCI), an industry group that issues an annual Long Term Care Insurance Price Index. “It’s rare to see one policy costing more than twice another policy when both are large insurers but each company gets to set their own pricing and each has their own target market.”

Slome was referencing the results of AALTCI’s 2019 price index, which found that a married couple who are both 55 years old would pay an average of $3,050 a year combined for a total of $386,500 each of long-term care insurance coverage when they reach age 85. But the percentage difference between the lowest-priced and highest-priced policies for such a couple is 243 percent, meaning that a consumer could wind up paying more than triple what they might have paid for similar coverage. Slome said that the quoted premiums ranged from $2,898 to $9,932.

The price differences between policies for single people were lower but still significant, according to the index.  A single 55-year-old man can expect to pay an average of $2,050 a year (up from $1,870 in 2018) for $164,000 worth of coverage. But there is a 123 percent difference between the lowest-priced and highest-priced policies.  The same policy for a single woman averages $2,700 a year, down from $2,965 in 2018, although again the spread between the least and most expensive policies tops 100 percent.

For the first time, the index suggests ways for couples to save on their premium by electing less coverage or a “shared care” option.  Couples purchase 65 percent of policies, according to the AALTCI.  But clearly one of the best ways to save is to review the offerings of a number of different insurance companies.  “We really recommend the importance of talking to a specialist who is ‘appointed’ with multiple insurers,” Slome said.

For the association’s 2019 index showing average prices for common scenarios, go here: http://www.aaltci.org/news/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/2019-Price-Index-LTC.pdf

Medicaid Home Care

Traditionally, Medicaid has paid for long-term care in a nursing home, but because most individuals would rather be cared for at home and home care is cheaper, all 50 states now have Medicaid programs that offer at least some home care. In some states, even family members can get paid for providing care at home.

Medicaid is a joint federal-state program that provides health insurance coverage to low-income children, seniors, and people with disabilities. In addition, it covers care in a nursing home for those who qualify. Medicaid home care services are typically provided through home- and community-based services “waiver” programs to individuals who need a high level of care, but who would like to remain at home.

Medicaid’s home care programs are state-run, and each state has different rules about how to qualify. Because Medicaid is available only to low-income individuals, each state sets its own asset and income limits. For example, in 2019, in New York an applicant must have income that is lower than $845 a month and fewer than $15,150 in assets to qualify. But Minnesota’s income limit is $2,250 and its asset limit is $3,000, while Connecticut’s income limit is also $2,250 but its asset limit is just $1,600.

States also vary widely in what services they provide. Some services that Medicaid may pay for include the following:

  • In-home health care
  • Personal care services, such as help bathing, eating, and moving
  • Home care services, including help with household chores like shopping or laundry
  • Caregiver support
  • Minor modifications to the home to make it accessible
  • Medical equipment

In most states it is possible for family members to get paid for providing care to a Medicaid recipient. The Medicaid applicant must apply for Medicaid and select a program that allows the recipient to choose his or her own caregiver, often called “consumer directed care.” Most states that allow paid family caregivers do not allow legal guardians and spouses to be paid by Medicaid, but a few states do. Some states will pay caregivers only if they do not live in the same house as the Medicaid recipient.

To find out your Medicaid home care options, you should check with your elder law attorney.

Understanding Medicare’s Hospice Benefit

Medicare’s hospice benefit covers any care that is reasonable and necessary for easing the course of a terminal illness. It is one of Medicare’s most comprehensive benefits and can be extremely helpful to both the terminally ill individual and his or her family, but it is little understood and underutilized. Understanding what is offered ahead of time may help Medicare beneficiaries and their families make the difficult decision to choose hospice if the time comes.

The focus of hospice is palliative care, which means helping people who are terminally ill and their families maintain their quality of life. Palliative care addresses physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual needs while also supporting the terminally ill individual’s independence, access to information, and ability to make choices about health care.

To qualify for Medicare’s hospice benefit, a beneficiary must be entitled to Medicare Part A, and a doctor must certify that the beneficiary has a life expectancy of six months or less. If the beneficiary lives longer than six months, the doctor can continue to certify the patient for hospice care indefinitely. The beneficiary must also agree to give up any treatment to cure his or her illness and elect to receive only palliative care. This can seem overwhelming, but beneficiaries can also change their minds at any time. It’s possible to revoke the benefit and reelect it later, and to do this as often as needed.

Medicare will cover any care that is reasonable and necessary for easing the course of a terminal illness. Hospice nurses and doctors are on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to give beneficiaries support and care when needed. Services are usually provided in the home. The Medicare hospice benefit provides for:

  • Physician and nurse practitioner services
  • Nursing care
  • Medical appliances and supplies
  • Drugs for symptom management and pain relief
  • Short-term inpatient and respite care
  • Homemaker and home health aide services
  • Counseling
  • Social work service
  • Spiritual care
  • Volunteer participation
  • Bereavement services

Services are considered appropriate if they are aimed at improving the beneficiary’s life and making him or her more comfortable.

Because the beneficiary is electing palliative care over treatment, there are things the hospice benefit will not cover:

  • Treatment to cure the beneficiary’s illness.
  • Prescription drugs other than for symptom control or pain relief.
  • Care from a provider that wasn’t set up by the hospice team, although the beneficiary can choose to have his or her regular doctor be the attending medical professional.
  • Room and board. If the beneficiary is in a nursing home, hospice will not pay for room and board costs. However, if the hospice team determines that the beneficiary needs short-term inpatient care or respite care services, Medicare will cover a stay in a facility.
  • Care from a hospital, either inpatient or outpatient, or ambulance transportation unless it arranged by the hospice team. The beneficiary can use regular Medicare to pay for any treatment not related to the beneficiary’s terminal illness.

To download Medicare’s booklet on the hospice benefit, click here.