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Courtesy: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

These tips can help you navigate Medicare’s updated online tool

Journalist Philip Moeller answers your questions about health, aging, and retirement. Phil is the author of the book, “Get What’s Yours for Medicare,” and co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Send your questions to Phil.

Medicare recently overhauled its online Plan Finder, which is the primary tool that anyone with a private Medicare health or drug insurance plan should use to compare the costs and coverage options of plans that will be offered to them next year.

These changes are important to the nearly 22 million people who have Medicare Advantage plans and more than 45 million with Part D drug plans.

Medicare says the new Plan Finder offers many improvements. However, some Medicare counseling groups are concerned that consumers will be confused by the new tool and will have only a short time to adjust to it before the start of Medicare’s annual enrollment period, which begins Oct. 15 and extends through Dec. 7. More than 60 million people with Medicare will then have the ability to choose new plans that will take effect Jan. 1.

I’ve taken the new Plan Finder, which was launched in August, for a “test drive” and think it will wind up being a big improvement. But I share the concerns of counselors who fear that this year’s open enrollment experience may be confusing to not only Medicare beneficiaries but also to the insurance brokers and nonprofit counseling agencies that will be helping people make their annual enrollment selections.

Counselors who help people with Medicare enrollments say they will need training themselves on the new tool. This might wind up saving time in the long run, but it will make this year’s open enrollment season more challenging and time consuming for counselors and beneficiaries.

The Medicare Rights Center has a largely favorable response as well, but said in a letter to Medicare that it hopes the agency can make additional improvements before Oct. 15. “The needed changes include improving the sort and summary features to account for data of importance to users, such as drug cost and formulary information, and clarifying potentially confusing language and displays,” the Medicare Rights Center said.

The old Plan Finder, which was discontinued at the end of September, let users save their list of prescription drugs as a password-protected feature. This saved information has not been carried over to the new tool, according to Marvin Musick, a Medicare insurance broker in Kansas.

“This is a major disruption, and we wish we had a good answer for why the government made this unnecessary change,” he recently wrote in an email to clients.

Getting easy access to this information will still be possible, however, because the new Plan Finder is designed to pull information from a person’s My Medicare online account. People should either set up this account or, if they already have one, check to make sure it is populated with details of their prescription drug needs and other details about their current Medicare Advantage and Part D plans.

If this is done, this information will be available automatically to anyone using the new tool who logs on to their My Medicare account when prompted. This feature made it easier for me to use Plan Finder, but I can empathize with anyone who finds it daunting to set up this feature.

When I used the new tool, it also lacked the ability to show me total plan costs when comparing plans. A spokesman for Medicare says this capability will be addressed before open enrollment begins.

Given these changes, and with open enrollment beginning in less than two weeks, it’s especially important that Medicare beneficiaries take the time to read and understand how their existing Medicare plans are changing next year.

All private Medicare insurers were required by the end of September to send what’s called an “Annual Notice of Change” to existing customers. It is supposed to provide details on any major plan changes that will take effect next year. Insurers also must provide people with a much larger companion document called an “Explanation of Benefits,” which includes a detailed explanation of what a plan covers. Medicare also recently updated its annual Medicare & You guide for 2020 plans.

Keep in mind that open enrollment lasts more than seven weeks, so don’t be in a rush to pick your 2020 plans. Even selections made on Dec. 7 will take effect next Jan. 1. As always, there are certain to be important changes in 2020 plan offerings and costs, so give yourself extra time this year to navigate the new Plan Finder and make an informed decision about the best package of Medicare coverage next year.

If you have questions about the new Plan Finder, or any other aspect of open enrollment, please let me know.

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