With Medicare’s Annual Election Period (also known as Open Enrollment) beginning on October 15th, over 65 million adults across the United States will have until December 7th to decide whether they plan to renew or change their Medicare coverage. Beneficiaries choose between Traditional Medicare (TM) and a variety of Medicare Advantage (MA) plans and prescription drug coverage. For this enrollment cycle, it is estimated that the average beneficiary will have over 40 plans to choose from, leading to complexity. For those who are dually eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid benefits, there is an even greater number of options for them to consider, especially if they live in areas where integrated options such as dual-eligible special needs plans and Medicare-Medicaid plans are available. As the US population continues to age and the number of Medicare enrollees grow, it is important to understand how beneficiaries make their coverage decisions and ensure they are protected from any misinformation in the process.
Though already complex, the plan selection process for older adults is further complicated by the deceptive marketing tactics that brokers, agents, and third-party marketing organizations (TPMOs) have employed in recent years. In a recent study, the Commonwealth Fund identified how some of these practices are driven by the financial incentives associated with enrolling beneficiaries in particular MA plans. Between robocalls and misleading television advertisements, many beneficiaries across the country have found themselves enrolled in MA plans they did not intend to enroll in, or that did not cover services or in-network providers that they were initially marketed. In a sweeping review of Medicare Open Enrollment-related television ads, Kaiser Family Foundation found that the majority of Open Enrollment-related advertisements last year promoted the Medicare logo and privately-operated hotlines, misleading beneficiaries into believing these were government sponsored ads and helplines.
Acknowledging the growing concerns and complaints among beneficiaries, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that starting in 2024, Medicare-related television ads must be approved in advance of airing and cannot contain plan names or Medicare logos and images that misrepresent their organization or agency. Additional consumer protections included in the 2024 MA and Part D Final Rule will hold brokers, agents, and other TPMOs to higher standards of providing transparent, quality information. These activities include monitoring TPMO behavior, regulating how and when they market to beneficiaries, ensuring brokers review the full list of options and choices available to a beneficiary, and going through a detailed, standardized set of pre-enrollment questions. There is also an increased effort in getting beneficiaries to use some of the federally funded tools and resources available to assist in their coverage decisions.
Some of these tools include the Medicare.gov website, the CMS Medicare Plan Compare tool, and a 1-800-MEDICARE hotline to help inform beneficiaries about their benefits. However, a study by Hernandez et al. revealed that very few Medicare beneficiaries utilized these tools and often felt more comfortable discussing their options in-person with brokers or family members and friends, even though these sources may be biased or potentially inaccurate. Additionally, it is important to recognize that navigating these tools requires some degree of health literacy and technological proficiency, which may disproportionately affect those who are low-income, have lower levels of education, or are non-native English speakers.
The State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), however, is a free and unbiased resource for Medicare counseling that few beneficiaries are aware of. In 1990, the federal government implemented SHIPs to help support Medicare beneficiaries with free, one-to-one health insurance counseling and education within their communities. It is currently run by the Administration for Community Living (ACL). The ACL administers grants to states, who in turn provide funding to community-level subgrantees to maintain various networks of full-time, part-time, and/or volunteer counselors. The latest available data suggests that SHIPs provided assistance to 2.7 million Medicare beneficiaries from April 2018 through March 2019—just 4.5% of the eligible Medicare population.
While some states had greater success, serving over 10% of their eligible population, others were only able to reach as few as 2%. A 2018 evaluation of California’s SHIP, called HICAP (Health Insurance Counseling & Advocacy Program), highlighted the strengths of this community-based counseling system. HICAP reported high rates of engagement, citing their ability to deliver uniquely tailored counseling to beneficiaries in their native languages and through in-person or hybrid settings depending on the beneficiary’s condition or preferences. Moreover, strong marketing efforts via Spanish radio shows and mailing postcards were particularly effective in reaching “hard-to-locate” populations. However, the program did experience challenges given the variation in operations across locations, citing concerns over the recruitment, training and retention of volunteers and paid staff.
In recognition of SHIP’s potential to provide an unbiased alternative to brokers and combat misinformation, CMS finalized a requirement in the 2024 MA and Part D rule that TPMOs are to provide a disclaimer citing SHIP as an option for beneficiaries to obtain additional help (42 CFR § 422.2267(e )(41)).But despite SHIP’s promise, some beneficiary advocates have worried that the multi-tiered, volunteer, and part-time driven delivery model that characterizes most SHIPs leads to access and quality gaps. This is especially a concern among vulnerable beneficiaries who may live in low-income neighborhoods, have disabilities, or limited English proficiency. Given their historically low utilization rates and limited visibility, others have expressed concern that SHIPs may be ill-equipped to handle an increased demand for services in the coming year, due to more Medicare beneficiaries being advised of their existence through TPMO disclaimers. With the limited evidence about SHIP’s performance and outreach nationally, given the diffuse nature of the program, it will be important to understand some of the barriers and facilitators they face to delivering timely and accurate Medicare counseling.
The free and unbiased nature of the SHIP program presents a promising alternative to helping beneficiaries navigate complex plan choices for Open Enrollment. As MA enrollment increases and as plan choices become more complex, the SHIP program should be monitored for potential inequities in access to and quality of services based on area income. For more information about your state’s SHIP program and to find a local Medicare counselor, please visit https://www.shiphelp.org/.
Research for this piece was supported by Arnold Ventures & The Commonwealth Fund