It’s that special time of the year again. No, not Christmas. It’s Medicare’s open enrollment period, from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, when people enrolled in Medicare can join, drop or switch health coverage or a drug plan.
Here are some of the best free resources from nonprofits and the government. Use them for enrollment help or at any time for answers to your questions and guidance in making decisions about Medicare choices and coverage.
Tip: For help with open enrollment decisions, start shopping for Medicare plans immediately so you have time to get answers to your questions. The help centers we are highlighting are in high demand at this time of year; you don’t want to get stuck at the end of a long phone queue during the last days of open enrollment.
1. ‘Medicare & You’ handbook
“Medicare & You,” a booklet published by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that oversees the Medicare program, is revised annually and mailed to Medicare recipients.
You also can view and download the entire booklet on Medicare.gov, the federal govenrment’s official Medicare website, where it’s available in various formats and languages.
This user manual is written in plain language and addresses just about any question you’d have about using the Medicare system. That includes, for instance, how to sign up, the various types of Medicare plans, pros and cons of Original Medicare versus Medicare Advantage, how to use Medicare, getting financial help and much more. It’s all there.
2. Medicare plan documents
If you are on a Medicare plan, such as a Medicare Advantage or Part D prescription drug plan, there are two important documents to watch for each fall. You should receive both notices each September directly from your plan:
- ANOC: The Annual Notice of Change notice explains changes in your plan’s cost and coverage that are due to go into effect in January.
- EOC: The Evidence of Coverage notice details what your plan covers and how much you pay for it.
Be sure to review both notices carefully before deciding whether to make changes to your plan. If you have a Medicare plan but didn’t receive either document by the end of September, contact your plan.
3. Medicare plan finder tool
Your choice of Medicare plans depends on what’s offered where you live.
That search is made easier when you use the plan finder tool at Medicare.gov.
You submit your ZIP code and answer a few questions to find your options, including prices.
4. State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIPs)
A SHIP, short for State Health Insurance Assistance Program, is one of the most valuable Medicare resources. It is a state-run program that uses federal funds to give free local counseling on Medicare enrollment and coverage. Their expert volunteers understand the rules and options in your state. In my experience, they really know their stuff.
State SHIP programs are known by many names, so it’s helpful to use the state program locator on the SHIP website (above) to find local services.
5. Medicare Interactive
The Medicare Rights Center is one of a handful of national, nonprofit consumer service organizations helping seniors and people with disabilities to find affordable health care and know their rights and options under Medicare.
The center’s online resource, Medicare Interactive, is a “free and independent” source of information. Use it to guide your research and answer your questions about Medicare services and enrollment.
6. Medicare Rights Center helpline
If you would rather chat with someone on the phone, the Medicare Rights Center has an option for that too.
Its free national helpline — 800-333-4114 — is answered by trained staff and volunteers. They offer assistance with understanding benefits, coordinating Medicare with other insurance coverage, making enrollment decisions and appealing denials of care — to name a few.
7. Age Well Planner
Use the National Council on Aging’s Age Well Planner to find Medicare-related benefits available in your state.
The council says that the planner includes a cost estimator, helpful for finding a plan that suits your budget, and that it also helps users connect with Medicare insurance brokers who have met NCOA’s Standards of Excellence.
8. BenefitsCheckUp tool
BenefitsCheckUp is another service of the National Council on Aging that makes it easy to determine if you’re eligible for Medicare Savings Programs and Medicare Extra Help. These are programs for beneficiaries who are on a limited income.