Medicare Advantage benefits are changing quickly. Here's how plans are ensuring beneficiaries know the options during open enrollment

Medicare Advantage open enrollment kicked off last week and as beneficiaries settle on plans, insurers are taking new approaches to ensure they know about the fast-expanding slate of supplemental benefit options. 

Beginning in 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is allowing MA plan sponsors to cover certain supplemental benefits aimed at improving care for members with chronic diseases, such as transportation, air quality devices and meal delivery.  

Plan sponsors across the country are taking advantage of those options. But the uptake remaining a perennial concern, engagement is a central challenge. 

“Consumers chronically underinvest in assessing their plans,” Dan Mendelson, co-founder of health consulting firm Avalere, told FierceHealthcare. “Most consumers can save money and improve the quality of their care by really assessing carefully what’s going on.” 

RELATED: Medicare Advantage open enrollment has begun. Here are health plans’ star ratings for 2020 

Mendelson said there are no signs the interest in MA is slowing down—researchers project nearly half of Medicare beneficiaries will be enrolled in the program by 2028—so plans will need to continue to hone their skills at promoting all they have to offer. 

Different strategies

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island is rolling out a slew of new benefit options in 2020.  For example, its BlueCHiP for Medicare Value and HealthMate for Medicare PPO plans offer wellness supports including a $200 reimbursement that can be put toward fitness classes, gym shoes or weight-loss classes, alongside a provided fitness tracker. 

All of its 2020 plans will offer an over-the-counter (OTC) reimbursement of between $25 and $200 per quarter that can be put toward OTC purchases either online, by phone or in-person at certain CVS Pharmacy locations. 

BCBSRI will also cover 24 one-way rides and gym memberships to more than 14,000 national fitness centers. 

“We took a pretty holistic approach this year to try and get just about everything we possibly could into our products,” Corey McCarty, vice president of BCBSRI’s consumer segment, told FierceHealthcare. 

RELATED: Cigna tees up largest MA expansion ever for 2020 plan year 

BCBSRI takes all the traditional steps to market its plans to members, such as annual notices of benefits. However, it has its own unique approach in the market, too—BCBSRI operates four retail stores in Rhode Island. 

McCarty said that members who visit one of their stores can classes to understand their benefits more effectively, and that the retail locations also offer technology help for seniors who may not be familiar with smartphone apps, fitness trackers and other tech tools. 

BCBSRI also pulls its associates from all aspects of the business into volunteer community meetings, which McCarty said are both a marketing tool and an internal learning experience. 

“Our aging adults are going to tell you how they feel,” McCarty said. 

Cigna, which is eyeing the MA space as a key area for growth, has been taking things on a market-by-market basis as it adds supplemental benefits. That plays into the marketing of those benefit options, as when they’re added to a new market they’re backed by effectiveness data. 

“Our approach in this space has been one of testing, learning and extrapolating instead of introducing it on a national basis on day one,” Brian Evanko, president of Cigna’s government business, told FierceHealthcare. 

RELATED: Why supplemental benefits in MA mark a ‘turning point’ in Medicare policy 

Anthem offers a “flex benefits” approach in MA that allows members in participating plans to select a supplemental plan that best meets their needs, instead of having coverage for services that they aren’t interested in. 

To effectively promote uptake and market these options, they must be designed in a way that fits into a beneficiary’s daily life, said Scott Rinefort, senior director for product design at Anthem’s CareMore subsidiary, at a conference last month. 

For example, a nutrition class that also embeds education about diabetes management and helps a beneficiary learn how to cook can pay off more effectively in the long term, he said. 

“It’s not a panacea, but we’re making inroads,” Rinefort said.