This year I’m turning 65 and signing up for Medicare, so brochures and “lead cards” for Medicare Advantage plans and Medigap policies began flooding my mailbox in January. This stuff can be a real burden, but some of it’s worthwhile – some even important – so you can’t just throw it all away. I let it pile up for a while. But like the good shopper, and reporter, that I’m supposed to be, I finally sat down and sorted through it all.
Hopefully, my sorting system (partly informed by decades of reporting on Medicare, partly by common sense) will make the task easier for you and shed some light on the confusing range of companies trying to help you, make a buck off you, or both.
Happily, few of the brochures contained the outrageously misleading and deceptive claims that some insurers once used to sell policies to seniors. Much of the information was legal boilerplate. Some of it was irrelevant. Much was simply confusing or incomplete. My basic advice: Look out for these common deceptive tactics:
1) The Trojan Horse
Lead cards ask for personal information so they can contact you directly. Sellers use these prospect cards to get a foot in your door. The reason is that the federal government has recently clamped down on the sellers of Medicare Advantage plans, requiring consumers to consent in writing before an agent can visit their homes or call on the phone. (Sellers of Medigap policies, on the other hand, can still show up unannounced at a senior’s doorstep.) These lead cards, some of which look like more conventional letters, typically offer savings or coupons to convince consumers to return them. Unless you have a particular reason to work with the company, just toss it. [time-link title="(Read Part 1 of Trudy's journey into Medicare)" url=http://moneyland.time.com/2011/06/02/my-turn-for-medicare/]
2) Scare Tactics
Another genre of cards I received use scary language to frighten consumers. One, titled “Medicare Open Enrollment Inquiry Card,” warned me: “You only have ONE open enrollment period” — to make me respond pronto. Needless to say, this wasn’t true. The card asked for my date of birth and phone number — and my spouse’s — and whether I wanted information about prescription discounts. (The card looked almost identical to one the Federal Trade Commission investigated 23 years ago.) It was to be returned to a reply center in Texas. I once interviewed officials at a company in Texas that preyed on seniors by sending out similar scary messages. Not happening. I say toss anything that tries to scare you into action.
3) The Supposedly Friendly Advisor
Two letters from SafePath Benefits, a licensed insurance sales agency in New York, promised a free consultation about Medicare options if I’d call their toll-free number. “We’ll work with you until you’re 100% confident that you’ve made the right decision,” one letter read. Would that decision aim me toward a SafePath product? Although the small print at the bottom of the letters disclosed the firm was selling insurance, SafePath referred to its sales agents as “specialists” and “benefits advisors.” Would a senior understand they were being sold insurance, especially since the pitch was carefully crafted to make people think these “advisors” were friendly counselors who would lead them to the right choice?
4) Faux Official Documents
An 11-page booklet from UnitedHealthcare called “Your Guide to Understanding Medicare,” featured the name of the widely trusted AARP. A big red banner across the front said “Medicare Advisor.” And it was exactly the same size as the government’s Medicare & You handbook sent to beneficiaries each year. The typeface was the same, too.
At first I thought the United-AARP brochure was the official Medicare handbook. If I, a supposed expert, was confused, what about those less knowledgeable? Only at the very bottom of the back of the brochure, in small print, was the message: “This is an advertisement.” UnitedHealthcare, the nation’s largest insurance company, has cornered the market using AARP’s brand. Judging from my own sample of solicitations, they are also the most aggressive.
After sorting out my collection of brochures and solicitations, I felt ready to dig deeper to fill in my Medicare coverage gaps — the deductibles for hospital stays and the coinsurance for physician visits, lab tests, and hospital outpatient treatment that could really leave me with unwelcome bills. Next week, I’ll share how that process went.