Seniors enrolled in Medicare have the option to switch plans during the program's annual open enrollment period, which runs every year from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7. During that time, seniors can switch from original Medicare to Medicare Advantage or vice versa, drop an Advantage plan and select a new one, or switch Part D drug plans.

Often, the decision to switch plans will boil down to cost. Advantage and Part D plans' scope of coverage can change from one year to the next, so seniors are generally advised to explore their coverage choices every fall.

Doctor talking to older man

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This past open enrollment, Medicare also rolled out a newly updated plan finder fool whose purpose is to help seniors navigate their health coverage choices and find the most cost-effective options. Though the tool has existed for quite some time, it hadn't been updated for roughly a decade, so the thought was that seniors would finally have an easier time making Medicare-related decisions.

Unfortunately, things didn't really turn out that way. The reason? Glitches with that plan finder have apparently caused a large number of seniors to choose the wrong plans, and pay the price after the fact.

How Medicare's plan finder changed

The purpose of the plan finder revamp was to make it easier for seniors to compare plan costs. The problem? While the tool allows users to sort through their plan options by lowest monthly premium or lowest deductible, it apparently has done a poor job of breaking down plan choices by overall cost. That's problematic, because while a lower monthly premium, for example, could produce some level of savings, if the flip side to that is higher out-of-pocket costs for prescription refills, those enrolled in that plan may not actually save any money. Quite the contrary -- they could end up paying more for coverage.

Furthermore, there have been some reports of the plan finder tool simply displaying incorrect pricing data, which means some seniors may have been making decisions based on faulty data.

The chance to choose a better plan

If your new Medicare plan is more expensive than you thought it would be, and the reason boils down to bad information you received from Medicare's plan finder, you're not necessarily out of luck. While you'd normally need to wait until this fall's open enrollment period to change your coverage, and wait until 2021 for your new plan to take effect, because of widespread problems with the plan finder, Medicare is making exceptions this year. Specifically, it's giving seniors who show that they were misled by the plan finder a special enrollment period to change their coverage.

Normally, you'll only qualify for one of these periods under limited circumstances, such as if you move outside your plan's service area, move back to the U.S. after living abroad, or lose Medicaid coverage. But this year, you get a do-over if you made a bad choice because you relied on a tool that was supposed to have worked, but didn't. If that's the case, call 1-800-MEDICARE and explain what happened. From there, you'll be given guidance as to whether you are indeed eligible for a special enrollment period, and how long you have to find a more suitable plan.