Friday, September 2, 2011

Medicare for women. Signing up is no big deal but do your homework

Medicare....it's what you sign up for when you have your 65th birthday whether you are a working woman or retired or something in between. Going through this sign-up process this summer has been the next big step on my road to retirement that began at age 63 when I quit my full-time job.
In a word: The whole thing is easy. Here's my step-by-step Medicare sign-up plan.
- Step 1: Call Social Security. Call or email the Social Security Administration at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ and let them know you will soon be 65. You have a three-month window on either side of your 65th birthday to sign up. Failure to do this means penalties later on. Social Security then puts you into the Medicare program and sends out your Medicare card. Medicare has four parts:

A. Hospital Insurance - helps pay for inpatient care in a hospital or skilled nursing facility (following a hospital stay), some home health care and hospice care.
B.Medical Insurance - helps pay for doctors’ services and many other medical services and supplies that are not covered by hospital insurance.
C.Medicare Advantage - plans are available in many areas. People with Medicare Parts A and B can choose to receive all of their health care services through one of these provider organizations under Part C.
D.Prescription Drug Coverage - helps pay for medications doctors prescribe for treatment.
Go to http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ for a basic helpful Medicare overview.
- Step 2: Medicare-only or something more? Decide if you will go with just Medicare coverage or whether you can afford to sign up for a Medicare Advantage or Medigap plan that broadens coverages and care options. Most people want more than the minimum Medicare program. Your provider will also like you better, if you've got an Advantage Plan or Medigap plan. Providers lose money on Medicare-only patients since the federal government only pays 80 cents or less for every $1 of care.
- Step 3: Check in with your regular provider. Call the business office of your current primary care provider and ask what Medicare plans your provider accepts. Providers aren't supposed to recommend plans but they can tell you what they accept. Their answers will save you a lot of time and help you cut through all the junk mail. (Warning: If you are relocating to another city, many providers will NOT accept a new Medicare-only patients. But they will accept Medicare-Advantage or Medigap patients.) Don't be buffaloed by all the marketing scare tactics that show up in your mail box. In fact, ignore all the stuff that comes to your mail box. Stay local or at least regional in selecting coverages.
- Step 4:  Check out Advantage plans and Medigap plans. Because I want better coverage and I also want added dental and vision coverage, I went with a Medicare Advantage plan. Many providers will recommend a insurance broker to help you sort through coverage options and costs. Some clinics offer free weekly Medicare classes to explain the process and options.  Once you've selected an insurance provider, call them. Have them walk through their various packages, levels of coverage and related costs. Pick the one that best suits your needs. There's usually three or four. Everyone is there to help, no matter how confused you might be.
If you are in good health and use few if any medications, a cheaper Medicare Advantage plan is probably the best choice. After a year, if you don't like the plan you can change it after a year or opt out for something else.
- Step 5: Figure the budget impact. Before signing up, figure out what all this will really cost. If you already are collecting Social Security benefits, the agency will start withholding $115 from your monthly benefits check once you hit 65. If you're working, you must sign up for some combination of Medicare and additional insurance coverage through your employer. Because I'm "retired", I separately am buying an Advantage plan for $80 a month. That charge will be paid with an automatic monthly withdrawal from my checking account. That way I don't forget.
Altogether my health insurance coverage will cost me a total of $195 a month. (Social Security deduction and added coverage plan). That's far better than the $399 a month that I was paying this summer for individual coverage. I expect the new combined cost to steadily increase over the next 30 years as adjustments are made to Medicare and insurance companies continue to raise their rates. See recent story in U.S. News & World Report.
Meanwhile, within a few weeks, I'll get a Medicare Advantage card through Regence Blue Cross in Portland, Ore. I'll use that for all my health care expenses including office visits to the doctor, prescription drug costs as well as semi-annual visits to my dentist and once-a-year eye exams. That's pretty much what I was getting through my employer when I was working.
Whew...another item checked off the list on my road to retirement.
Below are helpful Medicare information Web sites:
Official U.S. government Web site, click here.
Kiplinger makes it easy, click here.
Medicare Made Clear, for women, click here.
Social Security Administration on Medicare, click here.
What's ahead for Medicare and Social Security, U.S. News & World Report, August 2011.
Medicare Advantage vs. Medigap, click here.
What is Medicare Part D? click here.
Medicare "Starter Kit" from AARP, click here.

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