By Glenn Ruffenach
Some critical dates are approaching for Medicare beneficiaries. But most people are oblivious to the fact. Worse, their lack of knowledge about Medicare in general is likely costing them money.
Those are some of the key findings from a new survey by the National Council on Aging and UnitedHealthCare, a unit of UnitedHealth Group Inc. The poll of Americans age 60-plus found that only 9% are aware that the annual open enrollment period for Medicare runs this year from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7. In 2010, open enrollment – during which Medicare beneficiaries are allowed to make changes in their coverage for the coming year – ran from mid-November through the end of December.
At the same time, researchers found that 46% of respondents never have shopped around for better Medicare coverage, even though such efforts can help reduce a household’s health-care costs, particularly when it comes to prescription drugs. The respondents’ thinking: 41% thought they couldn’t save any money; 35% said they are confused by Medicare; and 16% said they simply don’t understand Medicare at all.
“In this economy, many seniors are justifiably worried about their financial future,” says Jim Firman, president and chief executive of the National Council on Aging, a Washington-based service and advocacy organization. “When it comes to Medicare costs, now is the time to they can do something about it. Research your options and apply for available extra benefits. You’ll be surprised how much money you can actually save.”
Those “extra benefits” include Medicare Savings Programs, which help individuals with limited income pay health-care bills, and Extra Help, which assists with the cost of prescription drugs.
The survey, according to the council, highlights the critical need for additional education about Medicare and the program’s benefits. For instance, only about half of those polled (47%) said they have heard about the so-called donut hole, the gap in Medicare’s prescription-drug coverage. As part of health reform, people who reach that coverage gap in 2012 will see a 14% discount on generic drugs (compared with a 7% discount this year), and a 50% discount on brand-name drugs (the same as in 2011). That said, 37% of those polled who say they are aware of the donut hole continue to believe they have to pay the full cost of prescription drugs when in the donut hole.
The council and UnitedHealthCare note that individuals seeking additional information about Medicare can turn to:
- Medicare.gov, the official site for the program.
- SHIPtalk.org, which offers local help from a network of trained counselors.
- BenefitsCheckUp.org, a site run by the National Council on Aging that helps older adults find benefits that they might not realize they’re eligible for.
- Eldercare.gov, which provides local information and referrals.