In this week’s column, Phil Moeller, the author of Get What’s Yours for Medicare: Maximize Your Coverage, Minimize Your Costs and co-author of the updated edition of How to Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security, discusses Medicare’s new Plan Finder.

Medicare’s annual open enrollment period began more than two weeks ago, and my mailbox is filled with complaints and negative reviews of Medicare’s revamped Plan Finder tool. Plan Finder is the only source of detailed information on 2020 private Medicare insurance plans — Part D drug plans, Medicare Advantage plans, and state-regulated Medigap supplemental insurance policies. 

I’ve written before about Plan Finder but its importance, coupled with the limitations of this “new and improved” version, merit continued attention. 

Plan Finder rollout

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has been cheerfully promoting the new tool since introducing it about two months ago. Its drumbeat of positive spin has not publicly acknowledged the widespread frustations and perceived problems brought to me not only by Medicare beneficiaries but also by Medicare experts, including insurance brokers and counselors trying to help people with their 2020 plan selections. Open enrollment began Oct. 15 and extends through Dec. 7.

The State Health Insurance Program (SHIP) provides free Medicare counseling and is a valuable resource for Medicare beneficiaries who need help trying to navigate Medicare choices. I am grateful to one of its counselors, Janey Elliott in Washington state, for sharing her experiences about the practical problems she has faced in using Plan Finder to help her clients.

“About half of my counseling is in one-hour segments at a community site,” wrote. “The rest is by phone or email from home. While many of my clients are tech-savvy, most are so bamboozled by what they need to do to get on Medicare, they don’t want to figure out their own coverage.

“The idea of creating a MyMedicare account is great, but in an hour, when you’ve explained Medicare options to a client, there isn’t really time to set up the account and run the Plan Finder. The new Plan Finder isn’t that difficult to run, but I’m so frustrated by the fact that the folks who developed it obviously didn’t do any testing with SHIP volunteers and apparently didn’t even bother printing out results!”

Some improvements

“There have been some fixes since the October 1 rollout. You can now sort Part D plans by total premium and drug costs.”
–Janey Elliott

“There have been some fixes since the October 1 rollout,” Elliott continued. “You can now sort Part D plans by total premium and drug costs, but the only place you see that value is on the summary before you choose plans to compare (I now write down the costs for the most affordable plans before I go to the comparison). The only place you can get member and non-member phone numbers is by going to the very bottom of each plan detail. So I end up printing out the plan comparison and then having to write total annual costs and phone numbers on it. Seems like it would have been so easy to just include those on the comparison page? (This makes my summary page look kind of amateurish, plus it takes a lot longer than it used to.)

“I like the details given for Medicare Advantage (MA) plans, but OMG — the paper needed to print them out for clients!  I so miss the ability to go back into a previous drug list, and really wish we could see the network pharmacies in the client’s ZIP code.”

“Restrictions may apply”

“One other thing that I’m finding kind of frustrating is that the new comparison shows that ‘restrictions may apply,’ but you have to go into each plan detail to see what the restrictions are, and it doesn’t say what the quantity drug limits are but tells you to contact each plan. I used to have to hand-write that on to the drug list, but it was easy to look them up from one central place, which made it easier for the client to compare them.”

As Ms. Elliott’s experience illustrates, people need to allot more time for their 2020 Medicare decisions. While their current private insurers might prefer that beneficiaries simply renew their plans, this can be a costly mistake. The premium for my current Part D plan, for example, will more than double next year. So, armed with a pot of strong coffee, I will be wading into Plan Finder for my own 2020 Medicare needs.