CHICAGO (Reuters) - (The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
Medicare experts often advise enrollees to re-shop their plan coverage during the annual fall open enrollment period. This is the time when you can make unlimited changes to your prescription drug or Medicare Advantage coverage, and shopping the market can help you save money and make sure you get a best-fit plan.
The shopping trip often begins with the Medicare Plan Finder - the official government site that posts plan offerings (bit.ly/2IDFHEJ). The plan finder allows you to plug in your Medicare number and list of medications, and then displays local options that fit your needs, and premiums you will pay.
But Plan Finder has some problems. Studies have found that users are often confused by the site’s navigation, and that information is often incomplete or incorrect. Even expert counselors who are trained to help enrollees with their selections give the site poor marks when it comes to ease of finding information, incomplete information and how pricing is displayed.
Now, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is preparing to relaunch the Plan Finder website in order to address some of the problems. CMS will introduce the new site by Labor Day on Sept. 2, according to Raymond Thorn, a spokesman.
The CMS declined to answer detailed questions about the new website in advance of its own rollout communication efforts.
Organizations that help enrollees with plan selection who have had an early peek at the new Plan Finder are cautiously optimistic about improvements. But they worry that the timing of the new website’s rollout will leave insufficient training time before the critical fall enrollment period, which runs from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7. The old and new sites are expected to run in parallel through the end of September, according to advocates who have been briefed by CMS.
“There won’t be time for people like us to test the site to find bugs and get familiar with it,” said Jo Murphy, executive director of Michigan’s State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP). All 50 states have SHIPs, which are a federally funded national network that provides free Medicare counseling using volunteers. “You certainly want people like us to be familiar with the new site, since so many beneficiaries who don’t have the internet or understand it come to us for help - we need to know what we’re doing.”
Few would debate that the Plan Finder needs improvement. A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found major usability problems with the current site. The study included interviews with beneficiary advocacy groups, private insurers who sell policies on Plan Finder and 41 SHIP directors.
SHIP directors and other stakeholders reported that the current Plan Finder provides incomplete cost estimates for enrollees facing one of the most critical enrollment decisions - whether to enroll in original fee-for-service Medicare or Medicare Advantage, the commercial managed care alternative. They pointed to search results for plans that fail to integrate cost information on Medigap plans, used by many original Medicare enrollees to cap out-of-pocket costs.
“That is a critical thing to include, because there is no way to make a fair comparison between the two global choices of original versus Advantage if you can’t factor in the cost of a Medigap plan,” said James Cosgrove, author of the GAO report and a director in the healthcare team at GAO.
Survey respondents also reported that Plan Finder is difficult for beneficiaries to understand, requiring navigation through “multiple complex pages in order to find and compare coverage options.” Beneficiaries also must answer questions about their current coverage and then go through a series of pages and steps before they can view detailed information on plan options.
Incomplete information about healthcare providers participating in specific Advantage plans is another problem noted in the report. “That’s a key piece of information when you’re choosing a plan,” Cosgrove said, “but it’s more challenging for CMS to address because it requires the cooperation of plans, and they sometimes don’t get it right themselves.”
A separate study last year by two advocacy groups - Clear Choices and the National Council on Aging (NCOA) - reached conclusions similar to the GAO study findings.
Advocates who have had an early look at the new site say it is a step in the right direction. “It’s cleaner, with more white space and easier on the eye,” said Leslie Fried, senior director of the Center for Benefits Access at NCOA. The Center helps community-based organizations, including SHIPs, find and enroll Medicare beneficiaries into programs for which they are eligible. “We think it’s better, but the jury is still out.”
Fried also worries about the timing of the rollout, with fall enrollment coming. “They are rushing this - people who use this and help enroll millions of older adults haven’t been trained, and they haven’t been able to train their thousands of volunteers.”
"With any change of this magnitude, with tens of millions of people relying on a system to make decisions about HC, you need more than a month,” she said, recalling the troubled 2013 rollout of the insurance exchange website launched as part of the Affordable Care Act. (reut.rs/31Uqg34)
“What if there is a glitch? Does anyone remember what happened with the rollout of HealthCare.gov?”
Reporting and writing by Mark Miller in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis