The Trump administration is rolling out new online tools to help seniors compare the differences between traditional Medicare plans and those offered by private health insurance.
The latest installment to the Medicare.gov website, called eMedicare, has a new feature allowing beneficiaries to chat online with government staffers to ask questions as they are looking at their coverage options, rather than obligate them to go see someone in person or to make a phone call. It also has been changed for the first time to allow people to use it through their iPhones or iPads.
People can sign up for health insurance plans between Oct. 15 and Dec. 7.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services billed the website change as an effort to help people make the best decisions about their health insurance, and to simplify the experience. Official said in a presentation of the website Monday that people who were aging into Medicare, a program they qualify for beginning at age 65, have expectations about being able to use online tools in the same way that they do in other parts of their lives.
The Medicare program that is managed by private plans is known as Medicare Advantage. They're supposed to be comparable to the traditional Medicare program, but there are differences in which doctors they cover, what the premiums are, and what out-of-pocket costs are involved. Certain plans also come with dental and vision care. Medicare Advantage accounts for a third of those enrolled in Medicare.
During the press conference Monday, reporters asked officials whether the latest effort was intended to bring more people onto the private health insurance plans offered. In discussing health insurance, Seema Verma, the administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has often pointed to the benefits of private coverage over programs such as Medicaid, which covers low-income people and is paid for by state and federal governments.
Verma pushed back at reporters' characterizations, saying the website was intended not as an organized ploy to steer people into Medicare Advantage, but to give people more information about their options.
"We think it's very important for our beneficiaries to make the choices that will work best for them," Verma said. "We want to make sure they have all the information. In the past they haven't had all the information. They didn't have the tools to compare costs."
What people pay for plans depends on several factors, including their health and where they live in the U.S.
When users head to Medicare.gov, they can now select "Compare Coverage Options" at the top of the page and are directed through a questionnaire to begin the process of how to pick a plan. They are asked a series of five questions, including whether they take prescription drugs, whether they want coverage for vision and dental, and whether they travel frequently.
The website then directs users to decide whether they want to add a Medigap plan, which helps pay for out-of-pocket expenses, or add prescription drug coverage. They also can select whether they want a higher, lower, or middle-of-the-road premium.
Users are subsequently brought to a landing page showing them an estimate of how much they will pay for medical care under the traditional Medicare compared with Medicare Advantage. The page shows what they would pay in out-of-pocket costs and in premiums.
Costs are higher for beneficiaries in "poor health" versus "good health" or "excellent health." They also can be expected to go higher if someone is in good health while filling out the information, but then develops a serious condition in 2019.
Throughout the different steps, there are several links directing people to the Medicare Plan Finder page, which allows people to provide more specifics about what their medical needs are.
"Ultimately the decision is theirs," Verma said of Medicare beneficiaries. "It's going to be based on a lot of factors, including the drugs they are taking and where they live."