The holiday shopping season seems to start earlier every year. And this year, Medicare's open enrollment season also begins — and ends — earlier than ever.
The annual enrollment period for privately run Medicare Advantage plans and prescription drug benefits starts Saturday, rather than in mid-November as in past years. The deadline for enrollment has also been pushed up — to Dec. 7 from Dec. 31. But the enrollment season is now a week longer, so it's not all bad news.
Seniors who want to stick with their existing plans don't have to do anything. But those who want to switch to a different drug or Medicare Advantage plan need to pay attention to the earlier deadline.
Don't put it off, says Medicare Rights Center President Joe Baker. "People have developed a habit of doing it by the end of the year," and many tend to procrastinate, he says. "Now, we recommend that people get it done by Thanksgiving, rather than Christmas."
Operators on MRC's Medicare helpline, which handles 12,000 calls each year, have been asking callers whether they're aware of the new dates, and most people aren't, Baker said.
A survey by PlanPrescriber, an online insurance comparison tool and seller, found that 65 percent of 475 seniors enrolled in Medicare's Part D prescription drug program weren't aware of the altered timeline.
But that telephone survey was conducted between during the summer — before a flood of mailings and TV ads geared to enrollment season. "We expect that people will be pretty aware," says Nicole Duritz, a vice president with AARP.
The change was mandated by the 2010 health law "in order to give people more time to choose a plan and to permit a smoother transition to their new plan," Tony Salters, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in an email.
Beneficiaries now have seven weeks, rather than six, to decide on plans, and the earlier deadline should make it more easier to get people their new membership cards by the start of 2012.
There is, however, one exception to the new deadlines: Beneficiaries who switch to a 5-star Medicare Advantage plan — the highest-rated for quality, as determined by CMS — can do so at any time during the year.