What you should know:
  1. Medicare Advantage Plans cover the same services as Original Medicare Parts A and B and may provide additional benefits, such as Part D prescription drug coverage, dental, hearing, and vision.
  2. Medicare Supplement Insurance plans, called Medigap, cover some services beyond what Original Medicare pays for and most of the out-of-pocket costs.
  3. Choosing between Medicare Advantage and Medigap ultimately comes down to access to care and costs. You cannot have Medicare Advantage and Medigap at the same time.
  4. You can join, switch or drop a Medicare Advantage Plan during the annual open enrollment period from October 15 to December 7 each year or Medicare Advantage open enrollment from January 1 to March 31 each year. The best time to join a Medigap plan is when you are first eligible.

When it comes to signing up for Medicare, there are many decisions to make. If you’ve determined Original Medicare isn’t enough coverage, the biggest choice becomes how to get more coverage. You essentially have two options for additional coverage: Medicare Supplement Insurance plans, called Medigap, or a full plan replacement through Medicare Advantage. Each option has its pros and cons, so choosing which is better often comes down to what you want from your coverage.

Original Medicare covers only about 80% of approved costs for medically necessary inpatient and outpatient services. This means that you’ll need to cover the remaining 20% of the bill. There is no cap on what you may pay out-of-pocket with Original Medicare.

To reduce the risk of getting stuck with a large medical bill, you can get more extensive coverage through private insurance companies with Medicare Advantage plans or Medigap. While Medigap supplements your Original Medicare coverage, Medicare Advantage plans are all-in-one replacements for Original Medicare. Here’s what you need to know about Medicare Advantage and Medigap policies and how to choose which one is right for you.

What is Medicare Advantage?

Medicare Advantage Plans or Medicare Part C, provide an all-in-one alternative to Original Medicare. Medicare Advantage Plans are required to offer the same health benefits as Original Medicare but are offered by private insurance companies.

Medicare Advantage Plans include Medicare Part A, Part B, and often Part D prescription drug coverage. Many plans offer benefits for additional things that Original Medicare doesn’t cover, such as vision, dental, and hearing. Some plans may even offer coverage for transportation to doctor visits and health and wellness services. There are four main types of Medicare Advantage Plans: HMOs, PPOs, PFFS, and SNPs. HMOs and PPOs are the most popular plan types and are widely available from most insurers.

Here are the important points about each type of plan:
Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs)

HMOs typically require that you receive all services from in network providers:

  • You must have a primary care physician (PCP), referrals for specialists, and prior authorizations for treatments and some prescriptions.
  • Drug coverage usually is included. You aren’t able to purchase standalone drug coverage.
  • Lower costs if you stay in network.
  • A point-of-service option (HMO-POS) allows you to receive out of network care for some services.
Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs)

PPOs include a preferred network of providers, but you have the option of choosing doctors or hospitals from outside of the network for a higher cost.

  • You don’t need to choose a primary care doctor or referrals for specialists.
  • Drug coverage is usually included.
  • You aren’t able to purchase stand-alone drug coverage.
  • Higher premium and out-of-network costs.
Private Fee-for-Service (PFFS)

PFFS plans don’t require a primary care physician or referrals for specialists:

  • You can go to any Medicare-approved health care provider or facility that accepts the plan’s payment terms and agrees to treat you.
  • May include drug coverage, or you can purchase a standalone drug plan.
  • Higher cost if you choose a provider that doesn’t agree to the plan’s terms.
Special Needs Plans (SNPs)

SNPs are only for people with specific conditions and characteristics, and include care coordination and targeted benefits tailored to meet your specific needs:

  • You need a PCP and referrals to specialists.
  • Drug coverage is always included.
  • If you’re eligible, you can join an SNP at any time.
  • There are three kinds of SNPs:
    • I-SNP for people who live in institutions or need nursing care at home
    • C-SNP for people with severe or disabling chronic illness
    • D-SNP for people who are dual eligible for Medicare and Medicaid.

Your costs for a Medicare Advantage Plan include a monthly premium, and copays or coinsurance for services received. Most Medicare beneficiaries have access to a zero-premium HMO or PPO with drug coverage. All Medicare Advantage Plans have a maximum out-of-pocket limit that you may spend on Medicare-covered services. Prescription medications and other benefits, such as hearing, dental, and vision do not count toward your out-of-pocket maximum.

You must have Medicare Parts A and B to join a Medicare Advantage Plan, and you are still responsible for the Part A monthly premium, which is $170.10 for most people in 2022..

What is Medigap?

Medigap, or Medicare Supplement Insurance, is designed to fill the gaps in Original Medicare coverage. These plans may also cover services Original Medicare doesn’t cover, such as medical care while traveling outside the U.S. Medigap plans don’t cover long-term care, private-duty nursing, hearing aids, vision, or dental. Like Medicare Advantage Plans, Medigap is sold by private insurance companies, but unlike Medicare Advantage Plans, Medigap is used to supplement rather than replace Original Medicare.

“Medigap plans were designed to provide insurance benefits for medical services after Medicare Parts A and B have paid,” says John Norce, president of Medicare assistance firm Medicare Portal. “Specifically, Medigap will help in paying for Medicare A and B copays, coinsurance, and deductibles that are typically paid by the Medicare beneficiary.”

Since Original Medicare has no out-of-pocket maximum, Medigap policies can help mitigate the risk of excessive costs. Medicare Part B covers approximately 80% of the Medicare-approved amount for services. A Medicare supplement will address the remaining roughly 20%, Norce says.

“Typically Medigap premiums are higher than those of a Medicare Advantage plan,” and vary by age, gender, and smoking status, he says. Note that you must be enrolled in Medicare Part A and Part B to get Medigap.

There are 10 different Medigap policies available, known as Plans A through N. Each plan offers different benefits and coverage.

Compare Medigap Plans
Medigap Benefits Plan A Plan B Plan C Plan D Plan F* Plan G* Plan
K
Plan
L
Plan M Plan N
Part A coinsurance and hospital costs up to an additional 365 days after Medicare benefits are used up Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Part B coinsurance or copayment Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes 50% 75% Yes Yes***
Blood (first 3 pints) Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes 50% 75% Yes Yes
Part A hospice care coinsurance or copayment Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes 50% 75% Yes Yes
Skilled nursing facility care coinsurance No No Yes Yes Yes Yes 50% 75% Yes Yes
Part A deductible No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes 50% 75% 50% Yes
Part B deductible No No Yes No Yes No No No No No
Part B excess charge No No No No Yes Yes No No No No
Foreign travel exchange (up to plan limits) No No 80% 80% 80% 80% No No 80% 80%
Out-of-pocket limit** N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A $6,620 in 2022 $3,310 in 2022 N/A N/A

* Plans F and G also offer a high-deductible plan in some states. With this option, you must pay for Medicare-covered costs (coinsurance, copayments, and deductibles) up to the deductible amount of$2,490 in 2022 before your policy pays anything. (Plans C and F aren’t available to people who were newly eligible for Medicare on or after January 1, 2020.)

** For Plans K and L, after you meet your out-of-pocket yearly limit and your yearly Part B deductible, the Medigap plan pays 100% of covered services for the rest of the calendar year.

*** Plan N pays 100% of the Part B coinsurance, except for a copayment of up to $20 for some office visits and up to a $50 copayment for emergency room visits that don’t result in inpatient admission.

“Since 2010, all Medigap plans were standardized to help the beneficiaries in evaluating their options,” Norce says. “This means that all plans with the same letter must offer the same benefits regardless of the insurance company offering the plans.” This also means cost is usually the only differentiating factor between plans of the same letter.

There are three types of rating methodologies used by insurance companies to determine the plan’s premiums, Norce says: community-rated, issue-age-rated, and attained-age-rated. “Understanding the difference between these is important when comparing policies.”

  • Community-rated premiums base cost on things, such as the expected rise of healthcare costs and benefits paid in prior years. These don’t use age as a factor in setting their cost, so your premium will be the same no matter your age.
  • Issue-age-rated premiums are the same as community-rated premiums with the additional factor of the age you’re when you first buy the policy. An issue-age-rated plan will be cheaper the younger you are, but your premium won’t rise as you age provided the policy remains active unless there are other extenuating factors, such as rising inflation or health care costs.
  • Attainted-age-rated premiums are determined like issue-age-rated premiums except that your premium will increase as you age. The premium can also increase due to inflation or rising costs.

You cannot have both Medigap and Medicare Advantage. If you join a Medicare Advantage Plan, you must drop your Medigap plan. If you drop your Medicare Advantage Plan to return to Original Medicare, you may be able to purchase a Medigap policy.

“Medigap plans have over five decades of providing excellent benefits to Medicare beneficiaries,” Norce says. “Starting early and spending time to understand the nuances of Medigap will go a long way in identifying and enrolling in the right plan for you.”

What should you consider when choosing between Medicare plans?

Choosing between Medicare Advantage and Medigap ultimately comes down to access to care and costs, and what’s available in your area. A Medigap policy is like having home or car insurance. You pay premiums and access your benefits if and when you need them. You can see any Medicare provider in the U.S. You must buy a standalone Part D drug plan for prescription drug coverage. A Medicare Advantage Plan has lower monthly premiums and frequently includes drug coverage. You are restricted to network providers to keep your costs as low as possible.

“Since Medigap plans are standardized, the evaluation process should focus primarily on cost, rating methodology and potential for future increases, and the financial strength of the insurance company,” Norse says. “Medicare Advantage can be a more complicated process since it’s combining all your benefits under one plan.”

Your research should focus on:

  • Your current health care providers and their participation in Original Medicare and/or Medicare Advantage Plans, Norce says. Start by identifying the plans that provide access to the care you need. “If the provider doesn’t participate in a plan, enrolling in that plan would leave you potentially paying 100% of their costs,” he says.
  • Prescription drug coverage through Part D plans or Medicare Advantage Plans that offer Part D benefits.. Look for plans that offer coverage for the medications you use so that you don’t end up paying the full retail cost out-of-pocket.
  • Extra discounts or benefits and how much you may use them.
  • Overall cost is naturally an important consideration, as well. Costs to consider include the plan’s annual out-of-pocket max, deductibles and premiums. “When estimating costs for your Medicare benefits, monthly premiums for B will be the same regardless of additional plans you enroll in,” Norce says.

“Ultimately, enrollment into Medigap or Medicare Advantage is a personal decision tied to your medical and financial needs,” Norce says. “You are unique in how you consume medicine, so finding a plan that fits your care first, costs second is always recommended.”

Can you switch Medicare plans?

Medicare Advantage:

You can join, switch, or drop a Medicare health plan or Medicare Advantage Plan during your initial enrollment period, the annual open enrollment period from October 15 to December 7 each year or Medicare Advantage open enrollment from January 1 to March 31 each year. You can also join a plan if there’s a valid Special Enrollment Period (SEP).

“Medicare understands things happen during the year, so they can grant SEPs for things like moving, your plan being canceled, or you entered a nursing home,” Norce says.

If you enroll in Medicare Advantage during your initial enrollment period, you also have three months from the date you enroll to switch back to Original Medicare.

“If you are on Medicare Advantage between January 1 and March 31 of any year, you can also change your Medicare benefits under the Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment,” Norce says. “During this period, you get a one-time change to any Medicare Advantage plan offered in your area.”

You cannot switch from Original Medicare to Medicare Advantage during the Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment Period. Nor can you join or change a Medicare drug plan if you’re in Original Medicare.

If you are a first time Medicare Advantage Plan enrollee and are not happy with your plan, you have special rights under federal law to buy a Medigap policy if you return to Original Medicare within 12 months. If you don’t drop your Medicare Advantage Plan within 12 months, you’re generally stuck with the plan for the rest of the year or until the next open enrollment period, unless you qualify for a SEP.

Medigap:

You generally won’t be able to switch your Medigap policy except in special circumstances or if you’re within your six-month Medigap open enrollment period. To switch Medigap policies, you’ll “need to go through medical underwriting to secure your new plan,” Norce says. You can call the insurance company for your new plan to apply for your new Medigap policy. If your application is accepted, you can contact your current insurer and ask to terminate coverage.

Make sure not to cancel your original Medigap policy until you’re certain you’ll keep your new policy. You have 30 days to decide if you’ll keep the new policy, called the “free look period.” You’ll need to pay both premiums during this period, but it can be worth the time to ensure your new policy is a better fit.

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Medicare consultant

LeRon Moore has guided Medicare beneficiaries and their families as a Medicare professional since 2007. First as a Medicare provider enrollment specialist and now a Medicare account executive, Moore works directly with Medicare beneficiaries to ensure they understand Medicare and Medicare Advantage Plans.

Moore holds a bachelor’s degree from Southern New Hampshire University and is A+ Certified with a Medical Records Clerk Certification and Medical Terminology Certification from Midlands Technical College.

He’s passionate about educating, informing, and resolving issues concerning Medicare and Medicare Advantage Plans, and considers it imperative that he does all he can to educate and inform the senior community as much as possible about Medicare.

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