The annual Medicare Open Enrollment period begins next Thursday, October 15, for the 2021 calendar year. Medicare health and drug plans can make changes each year — things like cost, coverage, and what providers and pharmacies are in their networks. From Oct. 15 to Dec 7, all people with Medicare can change their Medicare health plans and prescription drug coverage for the following year to better meet their needs.
I went to an information meeting about Medicare shortly before the pandemic shutdown. In less than five minutes, my head was spinning. It was unbelievably complicated and confusing. I left the meeting with a great deal of respect for the presenter—a SHINE counselor.
SHINE — Serving the Health Insurance Needs of Everyone — provides free, unbiased, health insurance information, counseling, and assistance to Massachusetts residents with Medicare and their caregivers. SHINE is administered by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs in coordination with local agencies.
SHINE counselors are available to meet with individuals, married couples, and caregivers who are trying to make sense of the complications of Medicare. Before the pandemic, SHINE counselors were available at local hospitals, Councils on Aging and at SeniorCare’s offices in Gloucester. Now, all appointments are being handled remotely—via telephone calls and online meetings — but the service is the same. The counselor’s job is to help the Medicare enrollee understand their insurance choices and options
If you are enrolled in Medicare, you should review all materials that your health or prescription plan provider sends you. If you have questions about what you have read, if you have had changes in your medical needs in the past year, or if your insurance coverage has changed, it’s time to make an appointment with a SHINE counselor. Appointments are scheduled for individual policy reviews, but you can a family member or friend join you during the phone call or online meeting to help you understand everything or simply for moral support. Write a list of all your medical needs, medications and your questions before your appointment. Your SHINE counselor will go through everything with you, and give recommendations on which plans are best suited to your needs. Married couples should schedule two appointments to review both of their plans.
If you are approaching 65 and do not know where to begin, you can get quite a bit of information online at medicare.gov. On this website, under the “Sign Up/Change Plans” menu, choose the “Getting Started with Medicare” option. Don’t wait until the last minute to start learning about Medicare. Give yourself plenty of time to read and understand all of the information. (There’s a lot of information!) Once you’ve read everything, give SHINE a call and make an appointment. A counselor can walk you through everything and help you get started.
It’s important to set up your Medicare options properly at the beginning, as some options cannot be changed once you make the initial decision. Or, there can be penalties if you need to change an option. It’s critical to understand what you are choosing — and the repercussions of that choice — before you finalize everything.
During the Medicare Open Enrollment period, you may see advertisements for free information on TV, in newspapers, and everywhere a company can advertise. Be aware that the information these advertisers offer may be presented in a way to promote their business. They want you to buy their product. The information they provide is not necessarily untrue, but it may be presented to make their product look better than their competition. If you call a 1-800-number for information, keep this in mind.
SHINE is a free service for all Massachusetts residents who are eligible for Medicare. Take advantage of this service. Don’t wade into the Medicare arena without the assistance of a knowledgeable advocate! For information on how to schedule a SHINE appointment, call the SHINE regional office at 978-946-1374. Be prepared to leave a message with your name, phone number and town of residence. Your call will be returned the following business day.
Tracy Arabian is the communications officer at SeniorCare Inc., a local agency on aging that serves Gloucester, Beverly, Essex, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester, Rockport, Topsfield and Wenham.