Get the most out of using the Medicare Plan Finder — Part II

Published Oct 28, 2018 at 9:00am

This month we are presenting Part II of our interview with Bonnie Natarelli, a case manager and HIICAP counselor with the Oneida County HIICAP program, to help us understand how to get the most out of the Medicare Plan Finder.

Because of the importance of this topic, and Bonnie’s expertise, we decided to split the interview into two articles. For those who might have missed last month’s article, the Medicare Plan Finder is the basic tool that you can access through the Medicare.gov website to help you locate the Medicare Part D drug plan that best fits your needs.

While it is designed to be used by consumers, Plan Finder is also the basic tool used by HIICAP counselors. In the first part of this interview, we focused on how those who are new to Medicare Part D can benefit from using Plan Finder.

What about those who have been covered by Part D for several years, how will they find Plan Finder helpful? Plan Finder will help if you have been covered by a Part D plan before to see if the plan you initially signed up for will still work next year.

You will be able to see if there is a better plan that fits your needs. If you have Extra Help and you will not be eligible next year, you may need to find a plan with the premium and drug co-pays that are affordable.

With Medicare you can change your current plan every year during Open Enrollment (Oct. 15-Dec. 7). If you have an Advantage plan and your health has changed where you need more coverage, Medicare has several Special Enrollment Periods. These include periods for EPIC, Extra Help and for those with a retiree drug plan that will no longer provide you coverage. In each case, you will find Plan Finder useful. 

Are there some “tricks of the trade” that you can share with our readers that may help them navigate the Plan Finder website? There are no real “Tricks of the Trade” that you need to know. Plan Finder has a world of information about Medicare. “I would encourage anyone who has access to a computer to log on and search around to see all the plans that are available.

If you do the personal search, just don’t want to hit the enrollment button. And, even if you are going to do a mail order plan you should still enter a drug store. Plan Finder will work best for you if you enter all the requested information.”

I would like to again thank Bonnie for providing us her insights. And remember, she and the other HIICAP counselors are always available to provide you with assistance, not only during this Open Enrollment period, but throughout the year.

Social Security benefits will increase in 2019. Each year Social Security announces the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). This year 67 million Americans who receive Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits will see a 2.8 percent increase in their benefits. According to US News and World Report, this represents the largest percentage increase since 2012. An increase in the rate of inflation, as reflected in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) used to set the rate, accounts for the majority of this year’s rate increase.  

This year everyone will still receive their COLA notice by mail. In the future, you will be able to choose whether you receive your notice online instead of on paper. Online notices will not be available to representative payees, individuals with foreign mailing addresses or those who pay higher Medicare premiums due to their income.

If you want to find out what your new benefit will be before the official notices are mailed, you can go to the Social Security website (www.ssa.gov) and create a my Social Security account. Accounts are easy to create and you can use this site to check on any aspect of your Social Security account. 

January 2019 also marks other changes that will occur based on an increase in the national average wage index. For example, the maximum amount of earnings subject to Social Security payroll tax, as well as the retirement earnings test exempt amount, will change in 2019. All this information will be posted to the Social Security website as soon as it becomes available. 

Medicare Part B premiums to increase for 2019. Currently, the standard Part B premium is $134 per month. For 2019, the standard Part B premium amount will increase to $135.50 (or higher depending on your income). Because of lower rates of inflation in recent years the Social Security COLA increase has not covered the proposed premium increases. However, since the average Social Security benefit will increase by $39 per month for an individual and $67 for married couples, these benefit increases will more than offset this Part B premium increase.

All new Medicare cards have now been mailed to New York residents. By now you should have received your new Medicare card with a unique number. Medicare recommends that, when you receive your new card, that you destroy the old card. If you have not received your new card yet contact Social Security as soon as possible as the New York state mailing is complete. The Oneida County HIICAP program can also help you to locate or obtain a new card if it has been lost.

Also, beware of scammers. Social Security and/or Medicare will never call you and ask you to provide them with personal information.

Help is always available in Oneida County to answer all your insurance questions. Whether you are new to Medicare or have been covered for a number of years, Bonnie and the other counselors at The Oneida County Office for the Aging/Continuing Care/NY Connects Health Insurance Information, Counseling and Assistance program (HIICAP) offices can answer questions. These services are provided at no cost to all Medicare beneficiaries. HIICAP offices are found at the following locations:

Ava Dorfman Senior Citizens Civic Center, 305 E. Locust St., with hours of operation on Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Again, while consumers are seen on a “first come, first served” basis you may call the Dorfman Center at 315-337-1648 to see if there are long wait times.

North Utica Senior Citizens Community Center, 50 Riverside Drive, with hours of operation on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Consumers are counseled on a “first come, first served” basis. However, if you want to call ahead to see how busy the office is you may call the Center’s HIICAP program at 315-724-8680.

HIICAP services are provided by Oneida County Office for Aging and Continuing Care/NY Connects. Anyone with questions about HIICAP, including issues with your Medicare Advantage Plan, should call the program directly at 315-798-5456 and press 4 in the choice list. It will direct you to someone who can assist you.

Dr. William Lane is the owner of William Lane Associates, a gerontological consulting firm now based in Homer, NY. He is writing a monthly column on issues related to health insurance for the OFA. He does not sell insurance, work for any insurance company or recommend any insurance products