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What is a Medicare Advantage special needs plan?

Medicare Advantage special needs plans (SNPs) provide specialized coverage — extra benefits and coordinated care — for people who have chronic medical conditions or face certain situations.

The Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 established SNPs, but they weren’t offered until 2006. Today, all of these plans provide medical and prescription drug coverage, and many have dental, hearing and vision benefits.

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Special needs plans come in three types, each with its own eligibility requirements and coverage.  

  • Chronic condition special needs plans (C-SNPs) offer specialized coverage for people with some chronic conditions, such as diabetes and end-stage renal disease.  
  • Dual eligible special needs plans (D-SNPs) create coordinated coverage for people eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid.  
  • Institutional special needs plans (I-SNPs) are for people who live in institutions, such as nursing homes, or who require institutional-level nursing care at home.  

In 2023, the number of special needs plans in the United States grew to 1,284, an 11 percent increase from 2022 and more than double what was offered since 2018, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In 2022, more than 4.6 million people were enrolled in Medicare Advantage SNPs.

What is a chronic condition special needs plan?

Chronic condition special needs plans offer coverage for people with cardiovascular disease, diabetesend-stage renal disease, respiratory disease and several other chronic conditions. While less common, some C-SNPs cover conditions such as chronic mental illness, dementia, and HIV/AIDS.  

The plans provide benefits tailored to people with long-term conditions such as provider networks with specialists who focus on your condition and access to special drug coverage to treat your condition.

A C-SNP for people with end-stage renal disease may include:

  • 24/7 access to a dedicated kidney care team.
  • Coverage for medications specific to kidney conditions.
  • Reduced cost sharing for services and supplies for dialysis.

Additionally, some plans offer advisers who monitor your care and medicine. If you have diabetes, a care coordinator may check your blood sugar, ensure that you follow your diet, get proper exercise, have the right prescriptions to prevent complications and schedule preventive services such as eye and foot exams.  

Many of these plans also provide nonmedical benefits only available to people with chronic conditions, such as a prepaid flex card with a grocery allowance and meal, pest control and transportation benefits.  

Nearly a quarter of Medicare Advantage SNPs are chronic condition plans, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

What is a dual eligible special needs plan?

Dual eligible special needs plans contract with state Medicaid programs to help coordinate benefits for people who simultaneously qualify for Medicare and Medicaid. It’s the most common type of special needs plan, accounting for 61 percent of SNPs in 2022, Commonwealth Fund indicates.

A D-SNP may arrange for:  

  • A flex card with a grocery allowance and funds to cover over-the-counter medications and transportation. 
  • Medicaid to pay Part B premiums and cost sharing for Medicare services.
  • No copayments for medications.

These plans also offer care coordinators to help you with your Medicare and Medicaid benefits. D-SNPs have a network of providers who deal with Medicare and Medicaid. The care coordinators can also guide you to local community resources.

What is an institutional special needs plan?

Institutional special needs plans provide care coordination and sometimes oversight to avoid complications for Medicare beneficiaries who are expected to live for at least 90 days in a nursing home, skilled nursing facility or other institutional setting. I-SNPs can also cover people who live in the community but need institutional-level care in their homes.

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An I-SNP may offer a nurse practitioner who: 

  • Coordinates care between your primary care provider and a facility’s care team.  
  • Visits you in a nursing home to monitor your care.

While they’re the least common among SNPs, I-SNPs have been increasing significantly, nearly doubling from 97 plans in 2018 to 189 plans in 2023, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

How do I find a special needs plan?

Medicare Advantage SNPs are available only in certain areas. You must be enrolled in Medicare Part A and Part B and live in a plan’s service area, similar to Medicare Advantage, to sign up for an SNP.

Even if you qualify to participate in an SNP, one might not be available where you live. 

To find an SNP and compare other types of Medicare Advantage plans, consult the Medicare Plan Finder. In the list of plans, click on the type of special needs plan in the filter by section.  

Keep in mind

Check out coverage and costs for plans other than SNPs in your area before choosing a plan. Your State Health Insurance Assistance Program can also help you.  

Before you enroll in a special needs plan, think about whether you want your health and drug coverage from a Medicare Advantage plan or from original Medicare

Published March 30, 2023


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