Tag Archives: health insurance

Seniors! Get Advice On Medicare Open Enrollment

If you’ve been watching TV lately, you may have seen actor Danny Glover or Joe Namath, the 77-year-old NFL legend, urging you to call an 800 number to get fabulous extra benefits from Medicare.

There are plenty of other Medicare ads, too, many set against a red-white-and-blue background meant to suggest officialdom — though if you stand about a foot from the television screen, you might see the fine print saying they are not endorsed by any government agency.

Rather, they are health insurance agents aggressively vying for a piece of a lucrative market.

This is what Medicare’s annual enrollment period has come to. Beneficiaries — people who are 65 or older, or with long-term disabilities — have until Dec. 7 to join, switch or drop health or drug plans, which take effect Jan. 1. By switching plans, they can potentially save money or get benefits not ordinarily provided by the federal insurance program.

For all its complexity and nearly endless options, Medicare fundamentally boils down to two choices: traditional fee-for-service or the managed care approach of Medicare Advantage.

The right choice for you depends on your financial wherewithal and current health status, and on future health scenarios that are often difficult to foresee and unpleasant to contemplate.

Costs and benefits among the multitude of competing Medicare plans vary widely, and the maze of rules and other details can be overwhelming. Indeed, information overload is part of the reason a majority of the more than 60 million people on Medicare, including over 6 million in California, do not comparison-shop or switch to more suitable plans.

“I’ve been doing it for 33 years and my head still spins,” says Jill Selby, corporate vice president of strategic initiatives and product development at SCAN, a Long Beach nonprofit that is one of California’s largest purveyors of Medicare managed care, known as Medicare Advantage. “It’s definitely a college course.”

Which explains why airwaves and mailboxes are jammed with all that promotional material from people offering to help you pass the course.

Many are touting Medicare Advantage, which is administered by private health insurers. It might save you money, but not necessarily, and research suggests that, in some cases, it costs the government more than administering traditional Medicare.

But the hard marketing is not necessarily a sign of bad faith. Licensed insurance agents want the nice commission they get when they sign somebody up, but they can also provide valuable information on the bewildering nuances of Medicare.

Industry insiders and outside experts agree most people should not navigate Medicare alone. “It’s just too complicated for the average individual,” says Mark Diel, chief executive officer of California Coverage and Health Initiatives, a statewide association of local outreach and health care enrollment organizations.

However, if you decide to consult with an insurance agent, keep your antenna up. Ask people you trust to recommend agents, or try eHealth or another established online brokerage. Vet any agent you choose by asking questions on the phone.

“Be careful if you feel like the insurance agent is pushing you to make a decision,” says Andrew Shea, senior vice president of marketing at eHealth. And if in doubt, don’t hesitate to get a second opinion, Shea counsels.

You can also talk to a Medicare counselor through one of the State Health Insurance Assistance Programs, which are present in every state. Find your state’s SHIP at www.shiptacenter.org.

Medicare & You, a comprehensive handbook, is worth reading. Download it at the official Medicare website, www.medicare.gov.

The website offers a deep dive into all aspects of Medicare. If you type in your ZIP code, you can see and compare all the Medicare Advantage plans, supplemental insurance plans, known as Medigap, and stand-alone drug (Part D) plans.

The site also shows you quality ratings of the plans, on a five-star scale. And it will display your drug costs under each plan if you type in all your prescriptions. Explore the website before you talk to an insurance agent.

California Coverage and Health Initiatives can refer you to licensed insurance agents who will provide local advice and enrollment assistance. Call 833-720-2244. Its members specialize in helping people who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income people.

These so-called dual eligibles — nearly 1.5 million in California and about 12 million nationwide — get additional benefits, and in some cases they don’t have to pay Medicare’s monthly medical (Part B) premium, which will be $148.50 in 2021 for most beneficiaries, but higher for people above certain income thresholds.

If you choose traditional Medicare, consider a Medigap supplement if you can afford it. Without it, you’re liable for 20% of your physician and outpatient costs and a hefty hospital deductible, with no cap on how much you pay out of your own pocket. If you need prescription drugs, you’ll probably want a Part D plan.

Medicare Advantage, by contrast, is a one-stop shop. It usually includes a drug benefit in addition to other Medicare benefits, with cost sharing for services and prescriptions that varies from plan to plan. Medicare Advantage plans typically have low to no premiums — aside from the Part B premium that most people pay in either version of Medicare. And they increasingly offer additional benefits, including vision, dental, transportation, meal deliveries and even coverage while traveling abroad.

Beware of the risks, however.

Yes, the traditional Medicare route is generally more expensive upfront if you want to be fully covered. That’s because you pay a monthly premium for a Medigap policy, which can cost $200 or more. Add to that the premium for Part D, estimated to average $41 a month in 2021, according to KFF. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

However, Medigap policies will often protect you against large medical bills if you need lots of care.

In some cases, Medicare Advantage could end up being more expensive if you get seriously ill or injured, because copays can quickly add up. They are typically capped each year, but can still cost you thousands of dollars. Advantage plans also typically have more limited provider networks, and the extra benefits they offer can be subject to restrictions.

Over one-third of Medicare beneficiaries nationally are enrolled in Advantage plans. In California, about 40% are.

The main appeal of traditional Medicare is that it doesn’t have the rules and restrictions of managed care.

Dr. Mark Kalish, a retired psychiatrist in San Diego, says he opted for traditional fee-for-service with Medigap and Part D because he didn’t want a “mother may I” plan.

“I’m 69 years old, so heart attacks happen; cancer happens. I want to be able to pick my own doctor and go where I want,” Kalish says. “I’ve done well, so the money isn’t an issue for me.”

Be aware that if you don’t join a Medigap plan during a six-month open enrollment period that begins when you enroll in Medicare Part B, you could be denied coverage for a preexisting condition if you try to buy one later.

There are a few exceptions to that in federal law, and four states — New York, Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut — require continuous or yearly access to Medigap coverage regardless of health status.

Make sure you understand the rules and exceptions that apply to you.

Indeed, that is an excellent rule of thumb for all Medicare beneficiaries. Read up and talk to insurance agents and Medicare counselors. Talk to friends, family members, your doctor, your health plan — and other health plans.

When it comes to Medicare, says Erin Trish, associate director of the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, “it takes a village.”


This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Falling Through the COVID19 Cracks

When COVID19 snared President Trump in early October, he promptly received a dose of Regeneron and an airlift to Walter Reed Army Hospital;  physicians dispensed a course of therapeutics – Remdesivir and the steroid dexamethasone, and  supplemental oxygen as needed. That extraordinary spell of cutting edge treatment soon put the president back on the campaign trail almost within the week.

The price tag for the president’s helicopter ride and specialized, experimental treatment cost roughly about $1 million say experts, and was free, and funded by taxpayer dollars.

“I would not be surprised if it were to exceed $1m,” said Dr Bruce Y Lee, a healthcare researcher at the City University of New York.

The five star treatment afforded to Trump, however, is beyond the reach of average Americans, even those with insurance. With private insurance to cushion the cost, an average American would have to pony up $520 a vial  or $3120 for a course of anti-viral treatment.

At the other end of the healthcare spectrum are the uninsured – people who cannot afford even a single dose of Remdesivir, let alone an entire course of treatment, said Dr. David Hayes-Bautista Director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, UCLA Health, at an October 23 Ethnic Media Services briefing.

His study of how the coronavirus impacts populations of color found that low-paid and uninsured workers in underserved communities rarely have health insurance to pay for treatment.

Without any protection, said Bautista, COVID19 finds gaps in care in the social services umbrella and the healthcare maze that marginalized communities have to navigate, and “the coronavirus falls upon them like rain.”

For uninsured workers who forage for healthcare access or have none, treatment is simply out of the question.

Quoting a UC Davis study, Bautista explained that $3120 for farmworkers in California is the equivalent of two month’s salary. What that means for farmworkers – many of whom are at high risk of exposure to COVID19 within the industry that employs them –  paying for treatment if they get infected means having to forgo food, rent, and other necessities that two months of income covers.

Disadvantaged populations have far higher case rates and mortality rates than non-Hispanic whites, said Dr. Bautista

When the virus hit, California shut down. People ‘grabbed their laptops’ and went home to work, but essential workers could not. Doctors, nurses and healthcare workers had to make sure they had PPE and equipment to treat COVID19 patients.

Other essential workers said Bautista, included meat packers, truck drivers, shelf stockers, grocery store workers, “folks working to make sure the rest of us can eat”, and check-out clerks who were far more exposed to the virus because “about 300 people pass within an arms-length.”

Those that tend to work in these occupations are mostly people of color, explained Bautista and the industries that expose them to the pandemic offer less access to care, treatment and follow up. As a result, California has high rates of exposure and mortality. The state now has a total of 922,005 positive cases. and a total of 17,626 deaths reports the California Department of Public Health.

In California, farm workers have been especially hard hit by COVID19. During the pandemic, migrant farmworkers continue to work shoulder to shoulder in ‘cuadrillas,’ and packing houses, or ride in crowded buses, putting their lives on the line to put food on our tables.

Vulnerable farmworkers (largely Latino, almost 100% immigrant, and 60-80% undocumented), are left out of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) because of their temporary status and cannot afford private health insurance. And yet, the county gave them letters confirming their essential status to travel, so they could go to work when the pandemic broke out. Workers were urged to see a doctor if they had symptoms, but without health insurance, “how would they pay to see a doctor, asked Bautista. “Some do not even know any doctors!” Their situation was further complicated by a requirement in the first few months of the pandemic, for sick people to get a doctor’s recommendation just to get a test – one they could barely afford.

“You could wind up paying $100 to almost $2000 for one test!” said Bautista. “In a farm worker family that quickly adds up.”

Even if a vaccine becomes available, said Denise Octavia Smith, Exec Director, National Association of Community Health Workers (NACHWA), it may be refused. Among Black and indigenous communities who have endured hundreds of years of medical testing and research on enslaved populations against their will, there exists a longstanding fear of vaccines, “We won’t be used as a guinea pig for white people.’’

Smith, who is tracking the disproportionate impact of Covid19 on under-resourced health systems, suggests supporting more community health workers familiar with barriers to care and wellbeing that marginalized populations experience, as trusted messengers to build bridges within these communities. This way, people who believe in efficacy of vaccine can get it when it becomes available

That moment could come sooner that they think. In a move that could transform life in COVID19  times for marginalized communities, the CDC is considering recommendations by ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices ) to “remove unjust and barriers to good health and well-being” in some racial/ethnic minority groups that bear the disproportionate burden of the COVID19 disease.

The recommendations ask the CDC to “commit to fair stewardship in the distribution of a scarce resource.” Under review are outreach strategies that will  overcome barriers to access, and reduce health disparities in each phase of vaccine distribution.

The interventions must ensure that all affected groups, populations, and communities are treated fairly and have equal opportunity to access the vaccine and treatment, not just the privileged few.

The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate. Even the President got infected. What’s different is he had access to treatment well beyond the reach of essential workers who work to put food on our table. They are the ones “we forgot about,” said Bautista, and who will fall between the cracks of our healthcare jigsaw puzzle without a safety net.


Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents

Image: WorldBank, migrant worker in strawberry farm

Behind The Troubling Rise Of Uninsured American Kids

More than a million fewer children receive public health insurance now than in December 2017. In some cases, their parents acquired coverage at work. But researchers also see a troubling rise in uninsured children — and say the Trump administration’s policies are partially to blame.

Kaiser Health News senior correspondent Sarah Varney and PBS NewsHour producer Jason Kane report from Tennessee, where the rate of uninsured kids has soared. This story aired on PBS NewsHour on Dec. 2

This article was originally posted by Kaiser Health News.