Medicare Deductibles and How to Avoid Them

Deductibles are essentially flat dollar amounts you must pay before your Medicare benefits kick in.  All told, in 2017 the total Medicare deductibles add up to potentially $3,187 in costs just for this year!  Plus, keeping up with them is no small task as they change (almost) every year.

To keep things simple, just remember this: A Medicare deductible is the amount of money you are required to spend out of your own pocket (first!) every year before your Medicare Plan starts paying for things. That’s really all there is to it.  If you have Original Medicare Part A, Original Medicare Part B and Medicare Part D, you’ll be “satisfying” deductibles before any of your claims or prescription drugs are paid for.  There are of course ways to not have to pay those deductibles, and we’ll quickly review those options below.

Some background: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) usually publish their deducible amounts for the following year in November for Medicare Part A and Medicare Part B.  They usually get around to publishing Medicare Part D deductibles in October of the prior year.  Like I said, they change every year.  Here’s what they are for 2017.

Medicare Part A Deductible:

$1,316

Medicare Part B Deductible:

$183

Medicare Part D Deductible:

$400

As I mentioned above, in 2017 this means if you have Original Medicare and a basic PDP plan, you’re going to potentially have to come up with $3,187 out of your wallet (or purse) before anything gets paid.  That’s quite a bit of money exposure I’m sure you’d much rather keep under the mattress or spend it on a vacation to the beach.  (If you do, go to the beach, make sure to see if your Medicare benefits will travel with you by clicking here).

While somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% of folks on Medicare don’t have either an MAPD or a Medicare Supplement, I’m a big fan of having some sort of supplemental or additional policy on top of having Original Medicare A and B.  I’m definitely not a big fan of going “bare with Medicare” as I outlined in a previous post, essentially because Original Medicare A and Medicare B do not protect or limit your financial exposure should a catastrophic health even happen to you.  You really need a MOOP!  If you’d like to read more about this, go ahead and click here.

The Takeaway:

If you’re shopping for Medicare Advantage plans (MAPD) the best place to do it (objectively of course) and really the ONLY place to do so to see all of your options at once is on the Medicare.gov site.  You can get there by clicking here.

If you don’t want to buy a Medicare Supplement or MAPD plan from a private insurance carrier and choose to keep Original Medicare for your medical coverage, you’ll still need to buy a PDP plan.  You can save yourself the pain of having to pay a $400 deductible for your prescription drugs by simply choosing a PDP plan that doesn’t have a deductible. Most “basic” plans (cheapest) have the deductible, but there are usually a few every year that are reasonably priced ($25-$35 per month range) that have no deducible.  You can search for those plans by clicking here, right on the Medicare.gov website.

Medicare Advantage Star Ratings and Your Wallet

Assigning Medicare Star ratings to Medicare Advantage plans is attempt by the government to neatly rate the quality of a Medicare Advantage (MAPD) plan.   Like most attempts to aggregate lots of information into a small rating system for easy public consumption, it’s flawed. Plan Star ratings should be one aspect of your Medicare insurance coverage decision.  However, it shouldn’t overshadow other considerations like price, network, MOOP or your prescription drug coverage.  Star ratings are important to you, because ultimately if your plan is rated 3 stars or below, it generally means you’ll pay more money for your policy or your benefits won’t be as rich as plans with 4 Stars or higher.    

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS)  established a five star rating system in order to help consumers identify and educate the consumer as to the overall quality of their Medicare Advantage (MAPD) Prescription Drug Plan (PDP) plans.  

The star rating system is numbered from 1 to 5, with 5 being the best and 1 being lowest in terms of quality of service:

5 Stars- Excellent

4 Stars- Above Average

3 Stars- Average

2 Stars- Below Average

1 Star- Poor

Medicare Advantage Star Ratings

Medicare Advantage (MAPD) health plans are rated based on the following categories:

1) Staying healthy: screenings, tests and vaccines. CMS evaluates whether members of a particular health plan got various screening tests and vaccines and whether they got other check-ups that would go a long way in keeping them healthy.

2) The management of chronic conditions: individual health plans are graded on their ability to ensure that members with long term conditions got tests and treatments that helped in managing their chronic conditions.

3) The experience of beneficiaries with the plan: the CMS routinely surveys members to elicit their experiences with different health plans, and this is factored into the STAR rating that each health plan will get.

4) Members’ complaints: beneficiaries under a certain plan can lodge complaints if they encounter problems when using their plan. Medicare also routinely evaluates the health plan of the private insurance company to plot the plan’s performance and improvement over time.

5) Customer service: this includes how often members with appeals and other problems are handled by the health plan’s customer service.

Medicare Stars Rating Flawed?

I mentioned above the ratings system is flawed. I say that, because every year, CMS changes the rules and how they score health plans.  Think about it:  There are over 54 million people on Medicare.  Can you really break down plan ratings across the country in only one way?  Can you really break down these ratings into a neat 5 star sliding scale?  The obvious answer is no, and policy professionals and insurance companies quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) let CMS know about it.  Differences in geography, access to hospitals and doctors, income and even attitudes about what it means to be healthy mean the results are suspect and imperfect.

I won’t spend any more time here on the flaws, as plenty of people smarter than me have already done so.  If you’re a policy wonk and would like to check those out, you can click here, here, or here.


Medicare Advantage Star Ratings Affect Your Wallet

Here’s what it means for you, the consumer.  In a nutshell, when you join a Medicare Advantage plan the federal government (CMS)  pays insurance companies a set dollar amount for your care every month.  Plans rated 4 Stars or higher get more money from the government for everyone enrolled in the plan.  This money really adds up, quickly.  Let’s say there are 10,000 people enrolled in the same MAPD plan.  And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that insurance company gets $1,000 per month, on average, from the government for every person’s medical and prescription drug care.  That’s $10 Million dollars per month, or $120 Million dollars per year.  Yes, that’s a big number, but remember the Medicare Advantage plan is on the hook for all the medical and prescription drug care (from the healthy to the very ill) of those 10,000 members.

So, let’s say the plan achieves a Star Rating of 4 Stars.  The insurance company will earn an additional 5% on top of the $1000 they get for all 10,000 people on that same plan.  Quick math means that’s an additional $500,000 every month MORE that insurance company makes, and $6 Million dollars more a year.  Some of that can be profit for the insurance company, but the government mandates a portion of this money MUST be spent on making the Medicare Advantage plan’s benefits better.  That’s where your pocketbook comes in.

Since Medicare Advantage plans need to take a portion of that additional 5% and put it back into the actual insurance plan, they usually do so in two ways.

  1. Lower the plan’s monthly premium
  2. Make benefits richer.  (Ex. Lowering doctor’s copay from $10 to $5, lowering hospital copays, etc.)

Medicare Advantage plans get a Star rating every year.  So if you think about it, if you’re in a 3 Star plan instead of a 4 star plan over the course of 5 years, and those Star ratings remain the same all 5 years, you’re missing out.  Why?  Because remember, a portion of the money the 4 Star plan gets over those 5 years MUST be put back into lower premiums or better benefits.  After 5 years, the Medicare Advantage plan rated 4 Stars should essentially, be cheaper (both in premium or by having better benefits) than the 3 Star plan will.

The Takeaway

Do Star ratings really matter?  Sure.  They matter because they give an overall indication as to the quality and customer experience of a given Medicare Advantage plan.  Is there a significant difference between a 3 Star plan and a 4 Star plan, from the consumer’s standpoint or experience?  No.  There are flaws, to be sure and the “rules” insurance companies must abide by change every year.  The real impact to YOU, the CONSUMER is that higher-performing MAPD plans that receive 4 Stars or higher are paid more from the federal government.  Half (or more) of that additional money MUST be put back into benefits or lower insurance policy premiums, which in the long run, is better for you and you wallet.  

Why Choose a Medicare Advantage Plan?

Medicare Advantage plans (MAPD) have exploded in popularity since re-introduced around a decade ago.  Is it the best plan for you? What makes these plans so popular?

It’s no secret prescription drug costs are rising much faster than inflation, and overall health spending is up.  Every year, it seems the government raises the Medicare Part B premium, Medicare Supplement (Medigap) and Medicare Part D (PDP) plans cost more, too.  Although I assume by now you already know what a Medicare Advantage plan is (click here if you don’t for a primer) there are very distinct reasons why according to Kaiser Family Foundation 31% of all seniors are now enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan.

Medicare Advantage plans come in 3 flavors.

  1.  PPO – “Preferred Provider Organization” – you can use doctors and hospitals in and out of the plan’s network.
  2. HMO – “Health Maintenance Organization” – you cannot use doctors out of the plan’s network
  3. HMO-POS – “Health Maintenance Organization – Point of Service” – while rare, these plans let you go out of the plan’s network, often requiring a referral from a doctor who is in the network.

So, why choose a Medicare Advantage Plan?

Combined Medical and Drug Coverage

Remember the acronym in the first sentence?  Medicare Advantage is the same thing as an “MAPD.”  That stands for Medicare Advantage Prescription Drug.  By far the biggest reason people enroll in these plans is because they get their medical coverage and their prescription drug coverage all in one plan, with one company.  It doesn’t matter if you’re at the pharmacy, in your doctors office or at the hospital; one card in your wallet is all you need.

Premiums Are Inexpensive (or $0!)

The number of plans available to you varies depending on where you live.  Cities get more choices, rural areas only a few.  Generally, the availability of these plans increase where there are more people in a geographic area who have Medicare.  For most of you, there are usually multiple insurance companies in your area offering $0 premium MAPD HMO plans.  They can afford to not charge you a premium, because they’re getting reimbursed from the government for your care and prescription drugs.  You can usually find HMO plans with better benefits for an additional premium ranging between $19-$40 per month.  PPO plans are available too, although typically there are fewer options and they’re more expensive at $30-$150 per month, depending on the plan.

Limit Out-of-Pocket Costs

Original Medicare Part A and Part B have significant drawbacks to them, and never cap the amount of money you can potentially spend should you get really sick.  Click here for a post I wrote a while back on this subject.  MAPD plans have a feature called the MOOP.  MOOP stands for Maximum Out OPocket.  Medicare mandates MAPD plans pay 100% of your medical care after a maximum of $6,700 out of your pocket in a calendar year.  Many plans have a lower MOOP and this is a KEY factor you should be shopping for, by the way.  The lower the MOOP, the better for you.

Low Co-pays for Doctor Visits and Prescriptions

Medicare Advantage insurance companies want you to see your primary care physician, and as soon as possible.  While that might not make much sense on the surface, it does if you have a medical condition.  If you have a medical condition and the doctor notes it in his or her chart, the insurance company can file for additional reimbursement from the government for your care.  Good for them.  All this really means to you is your doctor copays on a Medicare Advantage are low (usually $5-20 per visit, sometimes $0!).  Insurance companies also want to make sure you’re taking your prescriptions.  That’s right!  If you don’t, they get dinged in the wallet by the government in a variety of ways.  That’s why prescription drug copays are generally less expensive on MAPD plans than they are on Medicare Part D (PDP) plans.

Extra Benefits Not Offered by Medicare

The government allows Medicare Advantage plans to offer some bells and whistles to their plans to sweeten the deal for potential buyers.  Many, but not all plans offer built-in dental coverage, vision insurance, hearing aid coverage and even an over-the-counter purchasing allowance.  You get none of those items I just mentioned on Original Medicare, Part D or a Medicare Supplement plan.  If you were actually able to find a dental plan to purchase outside of an MAPD plan, I’d a) be amazed and B) tell you not to buy it because it’s not worth the money.  More on that in another post.

There you have it.  Four pretty good reasons to elect a MAPD plan for your Medicare coverage… low (or no) premiums, a limit on your yearly financial exposure, low co-pays for doctors and prescriptions and some dental, vision and other “freebies” thrown in for good measure.

Will Your Medicare Coverage Travel with You?

Summertime means the beach, BBQ and travel.  Will your Medicare coverage travel with you?  Should you buy a travel insurance policy before going overseas?  What if you have a Medicare Advantage plan?

The answer: It depends.

If you’re on original Medicare (not a Medicare Advantage plan), travel throughout the 50 states and US territories (District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa) means your health care is covered just like it is at home, no problems.  If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, traveling overseas, and even traveling away from home within our 50 states gets trickier.  More on that below.

The Medicare website on travel offers an easy explanation that isn’t 100% complete, nor does it do a very good job of highlighting when you’re not covered while traveling.   I’ve pasted and excerpt from the webpage below for your convenience.

Medicare may pay for inpatient hospital, doctor, ambulance services, or dialysis you get in a foreign country in these rare cases:

You’re in the US when a medical emergency occurs, and the foreign hospital is closer than the nearest US hospital that can treat your medical condition.
You’re traveling through Canada without unreasonable delay by the most direct route between Alaska and another state when a medical emergency occurs, and the Canadian hospital is closer than the nearest US hospital that can treat the emergency.
You live in the US and the foreign hospital is closer to your home than the nearest US hospital that can treat your medical condition, regardless of whether an emergency exists.
In some cases, Medicare Part B (Medical Insurance) may cover medically necessary health care services you get on board a ship within the territorial waters adjoining the land areas of the US Medicare won’t pay for health care services you get when a ship is more than 6 hours away from a US port.

Medicare drug plans don’t cover prescription drugs you buy outside the US

Will My Medicare Part D Card Work?

Ooh, there’s a zinger right there at the end!  Did you miss it?  Here it is again:  Medicare drug plans don’t cover prescription drugs you buy outside the US.

Prescription drugs purchased overseas are never covered by Medicare Part D. Huh.  That means your PDP plan is worthless overseas.  Better stock up before you go. I must say, it’s also interesting to see if you go on a cruise, you better only get sick if you’re close to the US or one of its territories.  It also makes no mention of what happens if you have a Medicare Advantage plan.  Here’s one more item of note from the site.

Foreign hospitals aren’t required to file Medicare claims. If you’re admitted to a foreign hospital under one of the situations above, and if that hospital doesn’t submit Medicare claims for you, you need to submit an itemized bill to Medicare for your doctor, inpatient, and ambulance services.

This is a nice way of saying if you get sick overseas, you’ll very likely have to pay, either with cash or credit card for your health care at the time of service.  You’ll then have to take all of the paperwork home with you, and fill out gobs of Medicare paperwork.  Look, they make it easy for you on their website! (Heavy sarcasm here, folks)  There are only potentially NINE forms you need to fill out.  If you want your son or daughter to help out, they need to fill out a form, too.   You better do it right as you get home; if you wait 12 months you’re out of luck.

What If I have a Medicare Advantage Plan?

So, I’ve teased it twice already; what do you do if you have a Medicare Advantage plan?  First of all, if you’re on an HMO, you may be out of luck if you get sick even in the next county over from you.  An MAPD HMO plan has a defined service area (usually by county) and there are ZERO out of network benefits.  If you have an HMO and live in Sarasota, forget getting routine care while on your visit the kids in Denver.  Oh sure, there’s emergency care… if you’re admitted, if you’re in an ambulance, etc. In all seriousness, aside from what the government mandates HMO plans include in their coverage, most do NOT have travel coverage.  To get the skinny, you need to pull out your Summary of Benefits booklet that came with your policy, or call the company and ask.

If you have a Medicare Advantage PPO plan, those by nature DO have out of network coverage if you’re travelling out of your service area in the US.  Often it’s way, way less than you enjoy in the network, but at least it’s there.  They also must have out of pocket limits so you won’t go broke if you get really sick on vacation and need to be in the hospital for a long time.  However, that does NOT mean you have overseas coverage.  To find out, you need to look at your Summary of Benefits or call the company.

Some Medicare Advantage companies tack on an additional feature to their plans to include some sort of travel insurance.  Most do not.

The Takeaway

We know by now there are restrictions on getting medical care overseas if you’re on Medicare, and can be even more if you’re on a Medicare Advantage plan.  Your Medicare Part D plan will not work overseas. What are your options?  Buy overseas travel medical insurance if you have an MAPD plan that does not cover it, or are on Original Medicare only.

If you have a Medicare Supplement plan you are in luck, my friend.  Medicare Supplement (Medigap) Plans C, D, F, G, M, and N provide foreign travel emergency health care coverage when you travel outside the US and  Plans C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, M, and N pay 80% of the billed charges for certain medically necessary emergency care outside the U.S. after you meet a $250 deductible for the year. These Medigap policies cover foreign travel emergency care if it begins during the first 60 days of your trip, and if Medicare doesn’t otherwise cover the care.

Be safe out there!