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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Navigating Medicare\'s Open Enrollment Period

Many of the elderly with Medicare do not realize it, but their health coverage has an annual open enrollment period, just as employer-based health insurance plans do. During this period, they can change their coverage options if they choose. This year's window opened this week, and remains open until Dec. 7.

Consumer Reports has helpful tips from its resident health insurance expert, Nancy Metcalf, to navigate the open enrollment period.

Medicare beneficiaries who are happy with their plans do not need to do anything, if they don't want to change. But it is still a good idea to check options, Ms. Metcalf advises, to make sure a version of Medicare is the best one in terms of cost and coverage. If, for instance, you have the original version of Medicare and pay extra for prescription drug coverage (so-called Part D coverage), you may want to make sure important medications you need are still covered under your plan, to avoid having to pay more for them.

If you have a Medicare Advantage plan - with private H.M.O.'s or P.P.O.'s that you may choose, instead of original Medicare - you should also check to see if your plan is still the best available option. The plans may include drug benefits or coverage for other health needs, like dental care, but benefits can change from year to year. You will want to make sure you can still afford the premium, and that your doctor is still included in the plan.

The Medicare.gov Web site has a tool that can help in comparing options for both Part D drug coverage plans and Medicare Advantage plans, based on where a person lives. To get the most out of it, you will need to know what type of plan you currently have. If you do not know, the tool lets you enter information, including your Medicare number, to find out. Or, you can call 800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) toll free and ask. You will also need a list of your medications, along with details of dosage and frequency of use.

I tried out the tool for a family member who has Medicare Part D coverage and found it time-consuming to enter all the necessary information. (Other writers for The Times have written about this in greater detail.) But the tool does let you store the information when you are done, so you can refer to it or update it in the future.

Are you or a loved one switching Medicare plans this year? Did you have any luck with the online tools?