It's smart to start learning and thinking about Medicare before it's time to sign up for it, so you can make the decisions that best suit your needs. For many people, one savvy decision is choosing a Medicare Advantage plan instead of the traditional Medicare package. But even with Medicare Advantage plans, for the best results, you need to know what you're doing. Here are three dumb Medicare Advantage moves to avoid.
Meet Medicare Advantage
First, though, let's set the scene. You may not have heard of Medicare Advantage plans, or may not have a good understanding of them, but as of 2016, more than 17 million Americans were enrolled in one. Enrollment in them has been steadily rising for more than a decade, and it now represents about 30% of the entire Medicare market.
Medicare today offers you more choices than it used to. There's traditional or "original" Medicare, featuring parts A and B that respectively cover hospital expenses and medical expenses. If you opt for original Medicare, you'll probably add Part D, which offers prescription-drug coverage, including insulin supplies. Instead of opting for parts A, B, and D, though, you can choose from among available Medicare Advantage plans, sometimes referred to as Part C. Offered by private insurance companies, they are regulated by the federal government and required to provide at least as much coverage as parts A and B. They usually offer significantly more than that, and they cap your out-of-pocket expenses, too.
While original Medicare doesn't cover hearing, vision, and/or dental care, many Medicare Advantage plans do -- and they generally include prescription-drug coverage, too. Original Medicare will often have you footing 20% of many bills with no end in sight, a Medicare Advantage plan might charge you a low copay per doctor visit or service, and they feature out-of-pocket limits, too. There's a downside that might or might not matter to you, though: While original Medicare lets you see any healthcare provider who accepts Medicare, Medicare Advantage plans will typically limit you to a network of doctors -- though these networks are sometimes very big.
Dumb Medicare Advantage move No. 1: not trying it
Some people may be intrigued by Medicare Advantage plans but afraid to try them, thinking that it's a long-lasting decision. It's not, though. At least once a year, during the annual enrollment period, you can switch into and out of Medicare Advantage plans and original Medicare. You might want to try a Medicare Advantage plan for at least a year, knowing that you can always return to original Medicare.
One caveat is that if you're in a Medicare Supplement Insurance plan, if you drop it to switch to Medicare Advantage, the premiums may cost you more if you re-enroll in it later. Look into this possibility before switching, if this may apply to you.
Dumb Medicare Advantage move No. 2: not choosing a highly rated plan
Next, as you look into which Medicare Advantage plans are available to you where you live, do review what they offer and what they charge, but don't stop there. Know that the Medicare system has a five-star rating system for services and facilities such as hospitals, dialysis centers, Medicare Advantage plans, nursing homes, and more. A five-star rating is the best you can get. Medicare Advantage plans are evaluated on measures such as how well they're keeping their members healthy (via screenings, checkups, and more), how well they're managing members' chronic conditions, and how good their customer service is. Drug plans are rated on measures such as how well member appeals are handled, how good their customer satisfaction is, and how well the plan does on safety and accuracy in managing prescriptions. So four-star and five-star plans are far more preferable than lesser-starred plans.
Dumb Medicare Advantage move No. 3: not making the most of it
Finally, once you're in a Medicare Advantage plan (or even original Medicare, for that matter), don't just seek medical attention when you're ill. You might as well make the most of your coverage -- in the process possibly saving money while improving your health.
Know exactly what your coverage offers. For example, all Medicare plans entitle you to a free wellness visit with your doctor once a year, so be sure to schedule one. Your doctor will review your overall health and discuss how it can be improved. Many important screenings are also free for enrollees, including mammograms and Pap tests, along with screenings for heart disease, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, depression, glaucoma, hepatitis C, alcohol misuse, HIV, STDs, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
Medicare Advantage plans may offer extras such as gym memberships, discounts on fitness products and programs, and more. Getting and staying as healthy as you can may lead to a longer life -- and one with fewer healthcare costs, too.
Medicare Advantage plans are great choices for many, but not all, Americans, as they may cost less and provide more coverage. It's to your benefit to learn more about them and see whether they make sense for you.
Longtime Fool specialist Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, owns no shares of any company mentioned in this article. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.