On Retirement

Guiding clients through the Medicare maze

Working with independent health insurance brokers can save time, money

Nov 11, 2019 @ 9:15 am

By Mary Beth Franklin

My Medicare moment has finally arrived. I signed up for Medicare Parts A and B for coverage beginning in December, the month I turn 65. Now my mailbox is brimming with advertisements for Medicare Advantage plans and Part D prescription drug plans, and my voicemail is cluttered with reminders about Medicare open enrollment.

Ironically, the barrage of advertisements about Medicare open enrollment, which runs from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7 each year for coverage beginning the following Jan. 1, is wasted on me.

As the spouse of a federal retiree, I don't have to make any of those choices. My husband's federal employee health benefits (FEHB), which we pay for each month through deductions from his pension, serve as our supplemental insurance so there is no need to buy a Medigap policy. And as the FEHB plan includes prescription drug coverage — typical of many retiree health plans — we don't need a Part D plan.

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But I sympathize with the 61 million Medicare beneficiaries who are bombarded with Medicare advertising each fall. No wonder most of them choose to tune out the noise and stick with their existing coverage.

But that can be a costly mistake. For example, prescription drug costs can vary by hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year between drug plans, according to the Senior Citizens League. Yet most Medicare beneficiaries don't compare drug plan options during Medicare's annual open enrollment period, mainly because the process can be so overwhelming.

While I applaud the growing trend of financial advisers who are incorporating long-range health care cost estimates into retirement income plans, I think many clients would welcome some help with their more immediate health care costs and the decisions related to Medicare.

I'm not suggesting that financial advisers should become Medicare experts. They have enough on their plate keeping up on the latest market trends, investment options and distribution strategies. But there are experts — independent health insurance brokers — who could help your clients with critical Medicare decisions, possibly reducing their health care costs and allowing them to keep more of their investible assets working for them.

"There are thousands of highly trained and competent agents who can help you enroll and there is never a charge for their services," said Jay Cox, an independent benefits brokers at Personal Benefits Service in Indianapolis.

I asked Mr. Cox what message he would like to send to the financial adviser community. "We're not trying to steal their clients," he said. "We want to work with them for their clients' benefit because nothing will ruin a retirement faster than a health care crisis."

Referrals to Medicare insurance brokers can also work as a two-way street as some health insurance clients may be looking for recommendations of a financial adviser who can help them with their retirement plans, said Ron Iverson, president and executive director of the National Association of Medicare Supplement and Medicare Advantage Producers Inc.

Medicare insurance brokers are independent agents who represent multiple carriers. They can help individuals review their options and search for a plan that fits their individual needs and budget. Medicare brokers are paid by the insurance companies they represent and cost consumers nothing. Some agencies also offer additional free services after plan enrollment, such as tracking down billing errors and writing Medicare appeals.

"I've noticed a trend that more financial advisers are open to working with Medicare brokers," said Danielle Roberts, co-founder of Boomer Benefits, a nationwide insurance firm based in Fort Worth, Texas. "It gives advisers peace of mind that they are handing their clients off to someone who can help on the front enrollment end and the back end."

Some advisers may want to work with local insurance brokers who can meet with clients face to face. Others with farther-flung practices may want to work with a national insurance agency that can help clients all over the country.

Ms. Roberts recommends consulting the website of the National Association of Health Underwriters, the trade organization representing professional agents and brokers who work with Medicare beneficiaries and Medicare products. There is a "find an agent" feature searchable by zip code.

Although the current Medicare open enrollment season is half over, it may be worth investigating some local insurance brokers or national firms that could help your clients next year or beyond with their initial and ongoing Medicare decisions. That way, when you discuss health care costs as an ongoing part of their retirement plan, you can point them to a professional who can help them evaluate their health care options and possibly save them a lot of money.

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