A Problem With Ads for Private Medicare Plans

Advertisements won't give you what you need to make a sound choice.


Seniors can sign up for new Medicare prescription drug plans starting November 15, but they should be wary of TV and print ads aimed at influencing their choice starting now. The Kaiser Family Foundation analyzed ads that ran last year around the open enrollment period and found that—surprise!—insurers didn't always give seniors the plan details they needed to make the best choice. The foundation also found that insurers placed three times as many ads promoting Medicare Advantage (MA) managed-care plans that include drug coverage along with medical benefits as they did standalone drug plans that accompany traditional Medicare. As I've reported before, insurers get reimbursed at higher rates for beneficiaries in MA plans than for those using traditional Medicare, so it's not surprising insurers would try to encourage seniors to sign up for them.

The ads trumpeted the extra benefits available to people in MA plans, such as vision and hearing coverage, and emphasized that premiums would be low or nonexistent. But a third of the ads didn't mention that these managed-care plans often rely on networks, so there might be restrictions on providers, or that certain services might be limited. The ads that did include that information put it in the fine print. "We certainly recognize that ads have restraints of space or time," says Tricia Neuman, Kaiser vice president and director of the Medicare Policy Project. "But our concern is that the ads provide basic information that seniors can use to make informed decisions."

The report comes on the heels of a hearing by members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging that examined continuing problems experienced by seniors who phone in to the national toll-free information lines operated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Problems ranged from wrong answers to dropped calls and long wait times. CMS says it's making improvements to the call line and to customer service training within the year.

But that won't necessarily help seniors who have questions about their drug coverage. For reliable help, consumer advocates recommend contacting your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program. Counselors provide free help examining and explaining plan options. Go to eldercare.gov and click on the link in the lower right corner to "locate Medicare prescription drug information and assistance in your community."