Signing up seniors
For the second year in a row, many of this nation's oldest residents have a new, must-do holiday activity: figuring out what the heck's happening with their Medicare benefits. Extensive cost and coverage changes that start Jan. 1 mean that North Bay seniors and their compatriots nationwide must try to decipher which of the plethora of plans best meets their needs for the coming year. Last year, the open-enrollment period lasted six months; this year, it runs from Nov. 15 to Dec. 31. However, folks choosing to switch programs must file an application by Friday, Dec. 8, if they want their new coverage to start Jan. 1. Applications received after Dec. 8 won't be effective until Feb. 1, says Bonnie Burns of the nonprofit California Health Advocates (CHA). "[Seniors] need to know what they already have and whether there's been any changes to what they already have. Then they need to know what those changes are and if it will affect what they've been getting," Burns explains. "Some will stay where they are because the changes are ones they can live with and others will have to switch." The government sent all eligible citizens a 116-page handbook called "Medicare and You 2007," which some congressional Democrats have argued promotes private insurance plans more than the traditional government-run program. Critics see this as a step toward privatizing Medicare. Many North Bay seniors recently received an "informational" mailing from a for-profit insurance agency called Senior Educators. The firm touts its "unbiased guidance" but it's not a nonprofit organization and isn't associated with any governmental agency. A company spokesman says seniors are clearly told on the phone that Senior Educators is a business. At CHA, Burns suggests seniors contact the company currently providing their coverage for specifics about any premium increases or changes in coverage for prescriptions or health services. Detailed comparisons are at www.medicare.gov. "Some of the information on the website is different than in the published booklet," cautions Burns, suggesting the online version may be more up-to-date. Reevaluating Medicare coverage options can be confusing, but it's an important process, Burns adds. Seniors not choosing a plan by Dec. 31 might lose Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage for 2007, or be stuck with a plan that doesn't cover the drugs or services they need. "People are locked into the choices that they're making," Burns explains. "They need to be careful about their choices for the coming year." The state-run Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program provides free guidance; call 1.800.434.0222 to arrange for personal counseling.