CMS touts new Medicare plan tools as part of its focus on digitization

Seniors with phones
CMS' Out-of-Pocket Cost Calculator and Medicare Plan Finder allow Medicare enrollees to compare plan prices via a computer, smartphone, or tablet. (Big Stock Photo)

Seniors enrolling in Medicare this fall can use multiple new or improved online tools to learn about their plan options, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced on Monday.

Among the suite of new tools unveiled by the agency on Monday: an Out-of-Pocket Cost Calculator that compares estimated premiums and out-of-pocket costs for original Medicare and Medicare Advantage (MA) based on service area and health status. Users can add a Medigap policy and drug plan to their estimate for original Medicare. Users can also select a high-, medium-, or low-cost premium for their MA, Medigap, and drug plan results.

During a demonstration at Monday's press conference, the tool appeared to indicate lower costs for MA plans. In response to questions, however, CMS Administrator Seema Verma insisted the site is not designed to steer seniors toward Medicare Advantage.

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Rather, Verma said, it allows enrollees “to make the choices that are going to work best for them.”

As the table below indicates, the estimates vary widely by health status, annual premiums, and location.

 

ZIP code

Health

Low premiums

Medium premiums

High premiums

Original

MA

Original

MA

Original

MA

20036 (D.C.)

Poor

$3600

$8736

$8225

$8112

$8643

$6240

 

Good

$1644

$4944

$5273

$5724

$5859

$4920

 

Excellent

$720

$3516

$4433

$4296

$5319

$4140

37011 (Nashville)

Poor

$7863

$7740

$8395

$6628

$7799

$8472

 

Good

$5199

$4032

$5875

$4420

$6143

$6420

 

Excellent

$3963

$2820

$4939

$3268

$5663

$5604

98127 (Seattle)

Poor

$8826

$7092

$9924

$7536

$9282

$7644

 

Good

$5346

$4644

$6540

$5016

$7254

$6840

 

Excellent

$4170

$3276

$5520

$3804

$6678

$6348

 

CMS has also updated the Medicare Plan Finder, which allows users to review and compare more detailed information about plans. A general or personalized search (using a Medicare enrollment number) will reveal specific costs (e.g., the cost of a copay), drug restrictions, star ratings, and dental, vision, and hearing coverage. Both of these tools are optimized for use on mobile devices, and the agency is adding an online “chat” feature where users can ask questions.

All of the sites are part of CMS' new “eMedicare” initiative which, like some of its other projects, focuses on bringing the program into the digital age. A promotional video says eMedicare seeks to “create a modern, personalized and seamless customer experience for people with Medicare and their loved ones no matter how they choose to get information.”

RELATED: MedPAC searches for ways to reach Medicare-eligible individuals who still aren't enrolled

But what about seniors who don’t get information through the internet?  

CMS officials told reporters it will advertise the tools through e-mail, social media, and YouTube. However, it will not advertise through television, radio, or paper mail.

This may limit the tools’ reach: Although internet use among seniors is on the rise, only about a third use social media, according to the Pew Research Center. Gallup found similar results in a poll about Facebook use specifically.  

However, CMS says the sites are “based on many years of research and feedback we’ve gotten from people with Medicare.”

Between these tools, lower premiums, and more plan options, Verma said she expects “this will be the best open enrollment that Medicare has ever experienced.”