Will I have fewer benefits? Medical benefits available through traditional Medicare will be covered in all Medicare Advantage plans, as they've always been. But what of those "extras" that attract many people to the plans — like routine dental, vision and hearing care, health club memberships and fitness classes?
With thousands of plans throughout the country, many of them serving areas no larger than a ZIP code, it's impossible to get a general sense of what's happening to these extra benefits.
But a look at plans in one ZIP code — a heavily populated part of Miami — finds extra benefits there will remain almost wholly intact for 2011.
In that area, more than 50 health plans that include prescription drug coverage are sold in a competitive market. Although the vast majority (47) charge no premiums, many cover routine dental, vision or hearing care, most often all three. Of the 35 plans with these benefits in 2010, only one will drop them in 2011. Twelve new plans will also offer them next year. Similarly, only three existing plans will drop health club memberships or fitness classes as covered benefits next year, and 13 new plans will offer them.
And more plans next year will offer coverage in the doughnut hole — some of them for a few brand-name drugs as well as generics. But with next year's big discounts in the gap, you'll need to figure out whether these plans are worth the higher premiums.
How do I figure out the best plan for me? The most objective way is to use the Plan Finder on the Medicare website. It gives details for every plan in your area and, in the case of drug coverage, automatically does the math to find the one that covers your drugs for the least out-of-pocket cost.
If you don't have computer access, or find navigating this program difficult, you can get the same information by calling the Medicare help line at 1-800-633-4227.
Patricia Barry, a senior editor of the AARP Bulletin, writes about Medicare issues.