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Q. How do I figure out which Medicare plan is right for me? I don't know if I should get a Medicare Advantage plan or a Medigap plan, or if I should just keep my original Medicare and do neither.


When you become eligible for Medicare you receive Part A, which covers certain hospitalization costs. If you want coverage for outpatient services, you should choose Part B as well. Even with Medicare A and B there are still “gaps” in coverage: for example, there is a 20% co-insurance fee for Part B services, and neither A nor B offer drug coverage. Most people choose to supplement their coverage with a retiree plan if their former employer offers it, or a “Medigap” plan, which plugs most of the holes in coverage (except medications). The rest, roughly 18%, choose a Medicare private health plan, called a Medicare Advantage Plan. These plans must offer at least the same benefits as original Medicare but have different rules, costs and coverage restrictions.

Medicare Advantage plans can be useful for those looking for all-in-one medical and drug coverage. However, Medicare Advantage HMOs restrict which doctors and hospitals you can use. An article in Kiplingers magazine sums up the differences well: “Medicare Advantage plans may charge lower premiums than you’d pay for Medicare plus a Medigap policy and Part D prescription-drug coverage. But you could end up paying higher out-of-pocket costs throughout the year. Some Medicare Advantage plans charge higher co-payments for big-ticket items such as hospitalization, or for critical services such as chemotherapy. Or they might not pay for the first 20 days in a skilled-nursing facility (which traditional Medicare covers). In addition, a plan may provide limited coverage if you travel out of state.”

Please note: A study of cancer patients by an affiliate of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute suggests that members of Medicare Advantage HMO plans are opting out of clinical trials because these policies generally require that the patient pay 20% of the costs associated with a trial. In contrast, Medigap plans generally cover those costs.

You can learn more about Medicare coverage options and find plans in your area by visiting the Medicare website. The Medicare Rights Center is also an excellent resource for Medicare questions.

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