MONEY Health Care

Why You Should Forget About Ebola and Get a Free Flu Shot Instead

Flu Shot Sign
Getty Images

Americans are nearly as worried about Ebola as they are about catching the flu. But influenza is the risk you should pay attention to. And you probably don't need to spend a penny to protect yourself.

Take a break from worrying about Ebola and get a flu shot this fall. While the Ebola virus has so far affected just four people in the United States, tens of millions are expected to get influenza this season. More than 200,000 of them will be hospitalized and up to 49,000 will likely die from it, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A new HuffPost/YouGov poll of 1,000 adults found that the flu is perceived as only slightly more threatening than the Ebola virus, however. Forty-five percent of people polled said that the flu posed a bigger threat to Americans than Ebola, but a substantial 40% said it was the other way around. Fifteen percent said they weren’t sure.

“Ebola is new, mysterious, exotic, highly fatal, and strange, and people don’t have a sense of control over it,” says William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University.

Influenza, on the other hand, is a familiar illness that people often think they can easily control, Schaffner says. “They think, ‘I could get vaccinated, I could wash my hands’ and prevent it.”

Yet that familiarity may lead to complacency. Flu shots are recommended for just about everyone over six months of age, but less than half of people get vaccinated each year.

Now there’s even more reason to get a shot. The health law requires most health plans to cover a range of preventive benefits at no cost to consumers, including recommended vaccines. The flu shot is one of them. (The only exception is for plans that have been grandfathered under the law.)

The provision making the vaccine available with no out-of-pocket expense is limited to services delivered by a health care provider that is part of the insurer’s network.

Depending on the plan, that could include doctors’ offices, pharmacies, or other outlets.

Medicare also covers flu shots without patient cost sharing.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

TIME ebola

Does Insurance Cover Ebola Care?

Your chances of getting Ebola in the U.S. are very slim. But if you do, who's footing the bill?

Ebola care is pricey, with estimates ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 per day, according to several health care analysts and experts who spoke to TIME. Some patients will end up spending weeks at a hospital, racking up a bill of $500,000 or more. That includes everything from paying the medical staff to disposing of waste, to the cost of resources like protective gear.

“The cost of treating a patient is going to vary vastly from hospital to hospital, [starting with] length of stay,” says Andrew Fitch, a health-care pricing expert at NerdWallet. “A patient treated in Dallas was only hospitalized for two weeks while another was treated for six weeks. The cost of dialysis and IV fluids is going to add up pretty fast and that is going to be compounded by the cost of isolation.”

So who foots the bill?

If you have insurance in the U.S., your insurer is likely going to cover the costs under emergency and/or inpatient care coverage. Even though patients with Ebola often first present in the emergency room, the disease is typically intensive and can last for several weeks. Major insurance providers TIME spoke to said they would cover Ebola treatment—but bear in mind that coverage starts after a person has met his or her deductible, which can be upwards of $13,000 for some family plans and $6,000 for an individual plan, says Jeffrey Rice, CEO
of Healthcare BlueBook, a Tennessee company that calculates health-care prices for consumers.

Dr. Craig Spencer, the Ebola patient in New York City, has health insurance coverage through Doctors Without Borders. Missionaries like Dr. Kent Brantly, Dr. Richard Sacra and Nancy Writebol have insurance through their missionary groups. Nebraska Medical Center, which has treated two patients with Ebola, including Sacra and NBC freelancer Ashoka Mukpo, says all of its patients’ care has so far been covered by their insurance providers.

But what if you don’t have health insurance?

Despite numerous requests from TIME to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, the hospital did not confirmed how the uninsured Liberian patient Thomas Eric Duncan’s care was paid for. Analysts believe it’s unlikely that Duncan’s family will be dealt a hefty bill given how high-profile the case was and the mistakes made by the hospital.

Nebraska Medical Center says it would go about treating an uninsured patient with Ebola the same way that it would treat any patient who comes into their emergency room without insurance. They are federally obligated to treat the patient, and then the patients who cannot pay for their care can apply for financial aid and become part of the hospital’s charitable care program. “We provide millions of dollars worth of this kind of care yearly,” a Nebraska hospital spokesperson told TIME.

What if you get sent to a hospital that’s out of network?

Being treated at out-of-network hospital or by an out-of-network doctor could, in theory, result in a hefty bill. Getting out-of-network treatment covered by your insurance company is decided on a case-by-case basis based on medical necessity. While insurers have the legal right to refuse to cover this type of treatment, says Sabrina Corlette of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University, it’s highly unlikely that they would sack the patient with the bill.

If your stuff needs to be incinerated, does insurance cover that?

One of the surefire ways to get rid of any lingering virus within an Ebola patient’s home is to incinerate their belongings. But do they get reimbursed? Most likely. If a government body or medical professional recommends or requires the destruction of property as a preventative measure in the spread of the virus, the value of the destroyed items would most likely be covered at the cost to replace them, or at depreciated value under a home, business or renters policy, says Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders.

Does insurance cover experimental drugs?

No, but that’s because there’s typically no cost involved at all when a drug is still in research and development.

 

MONEY Health Care

Why You Could Get Stuck Paying for More of Your Health Care

Red traffic light
Your insurer may put a stop to how much it will spend on your surgery. iStock

A growing number of companies are capping what your insurance will pay for certain medical procedures. Get more expensive care, and you could be on the hook for the extra.

Aiming to contain health care costs, a growing number of employers and insurers are adopting a strategy that limits how much they’ll pay for certain medical services such as knee replacements, lab tests and complex imaging. A recent study found that savings from such moves may be modest, however, and some experts question whether “reference pricing,” as it’s called, is good for consumers.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), which administers the health insurance benefits for 1.4 million state workers, retirees, and their families, has one of the more established reference pricing systems. More than three years ago, the agency began using reference pricing for elective knee and hip replacements, two common procedures for which hospital prices varied widely without discernible differences in quality, says Ann Boynton, CalPERS’ deputy executive officer for Benefit Programs Policy and Planning.

Working with Anthem Blue Cross, the agency set $30,000 as the reference price for those two surgeries in its preferred provider organization plan. Members who get surgery at one of the 52 hospitals that charge $30,000 or less pay only their plan’s regular cost-sharing. If a member chooses to use an in-network hospital that charges more than the reference price, however, they’re on the hook for the entire amount over $30,000, and the extra spending doesn’t count toward their annual maximum out-of-pocket limit, Boynton says.

“We’re not worried about people not getting the care they need,” says Boynton. “They have access to good hospitals, they’re just getting it at a reasonable price.”

In two years, CalPERS saved nearly $6 million on those two procedures, and members saved $600,000 in lower cost sharing, according to research published last year by James C. Robinson, a professor of health economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Berkeley Center for Health Technology. Most of the savings came from price reductions at expensive hospitals.

The agency recently set caps on how much it would spend for cataract surgery, colonoscopies, and arthroscopic surgery, Boynton says.

Experts say that reference pricing is most appropriate for common, non-emergency procedures or tests that vary widely in price but are generally comparable in quality. Research has generally shown that higher prices for medical services don’t equate with higher quality. Setting a reference price steers consumers to high-quality doctors, hospitals, labs and imaging centers that perform well for the price, proponents say.

Others point out that reference pricing doesn’t necessarily save employers a lot of money, however. A study released earlier this month by the National Institute for Health Care Reform examined the 2011 claims data for 528,000 autoworkers and their dependents, both active and retired. It analyzed roughly 350 high-volume and/or high-priced inpatient and ambulatory medical services that reference pricing might reasonably be applied to.

The overall potential savings was 5%, the study found.

“It was surprising that even with all that pricing variation, reference pricing doesn’t have a more dramatic impact on spending,” says Chapin White, a senior policy researcher at RAND and lead author of the study.

Even though the results may be modest, a growing number of very large companies are incorporating reference pricing, according to benefits consultant Mercer’s annual employer health insurance survey. The percentage of employers with 10,000 or more employees that used reference pricing grew from 10% in 2012 to 15% in 2013, the survey found. Thirty percent said they were considering adding reference pricing, the survey found. Among employers with 500 or fewer workers, adoption was flat at 10% in 2013, compared with 11% in 2012.

The approach is consistent with employers’ general interest in encouraging employees to make cost-effective choices on the job, whether for health care or business supplies, says Sander Domaszewicz, a principal in Mercer’s health and benefits practice.

This spring, the Obama administration said that large group and self-insured health plans could use reference pricing.

The health law sets limits on how much consumers have to pay out of pocket annually for in-network care before insurance picks up the whole tab—in 2015, it’s $6,600 for an individual and $13,200 for a family plan. But if consumers choose providers whose prices are higher than a plan’s reference price, those amounts don’t count toward the out-of-pocket maximum, the administration guidance said.

Leaving consumers on the hook for amounts over the reference price needlessly drags them into the battle between providers and health plans over prices, says White.

“You expect the health plan to do a few things: negotiate reasonable prices with providers, and not to enter into network contracts with providers who provide bad quality care,” White says. “Reference pricing is kind of an admission that health plans have failed on one or both of those fronts.”

Some experts, however, say the strategy can work for consumers.

“What I think is that reference pricing is a choice-preserving strategy, when you look at the alternative, which is a narrow network,” says Robinson.

That may be a question of semantics, if relatively few providers meet the reference price.

Recent guidance from the administration spells out some of the requirements that health plans must meet in order to ensure that there are adequate numbers of high-quality providers if reference-based pricing is used. Among other things, it suggests that plans consider geographic distance from providers or patient wait times.

Like so much about reference pricing, it remains a work in progress. The administration says it will continue to monitor the practice, and may provide additional guidance in the future.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

MONEY Medicare

Some Medicare Advantage Plans Have Hidden Risks—Here’s How to Avoid Them

hands using measuring tape
Nils Kahle

Although they promise quality care at lower cost, some Medicare Advantage plans fall short. Before you enroll, here are key questions to ask.

Seniors have flocked to Medicare Advantage in recent years, attracted by savings on premiums and the convenience of one-stop shopping. But as the annual Medicare enrollment season began this week, a memorandum from federal officials to plan providers surfaced that serves as a big red warning flag.

The upshot: Assess the quality of any Advantage plan before you sign up.

The memorandum, first reported by the New York Times, described ongoing compliance problems uncovered in federal audits of Advantage and prescription drug plans. These include inadequate rationales for denial of coverage, failure to consider clinical information from doctors and failure to notify patients of their rights to appeal decisions. The audits also uncovered problems with inappropriate rejection of prescription drug claims.

Advantage is a managed care alternative to traditional fee-for-service Medicare. It rolls together coverage for hospitalization, outpatient services and, usually, prescription drugs. Advantage plans also cap your out-of-pocket expenses, making Medigap supplemental plans unnecessary.

The savings can be substantial. Medigap plan premiums can cost $200 monthly or more, and stand-alone drug plans will average $39 a month next year. Enrollees have been voting with their wallets: 30% are in Advantage plans this year, up from 13% in 2005, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Advantage plans are subject to strict rules and regulations, and must cover all services offered in original Medicare, with the exception of hospice services. Some offer extra coverage, such as vision, hearing, dental and wellness programs.

And there is evidence that the quality of these plans is rising. Medicare uses a five-star rating system to grade plan quality, and plans can earn bonus payments based on their ratings. Average enrollment-weighted star ratings increased to 3.92 for 2015, from 3.86 in 2013 and 3.71 in 2013, according to Avalere Health, an industry research and consulting firm. Avalere projects that 60% of Advantage enrollment will be in four- or five-star plans next year, up from 52% this year.

But the Medicare memorandum focuses on problems outside the rating system. “It’s about basic blocking and tackling and whether a plan adheres to the program’s technical specs,” says Dan Mendelson, Avalere’s chief executive officer. “These are the basic functions that every plan should be able to handle.”

Nevertheless, consumer advocates say they deal with these compliance problems regularly, and more often with enrollees in Advantage than in traditional Medicare.

“The most typical problems have to do with plans that are making it difficult or impossible for people to get their medications,” says Jocelyn Watrous, an advocate for patients at the Center for Medicare Advocacy. “They impose prior authorizations or other utilization management rules that they make up out of whole cloth.”

Consumer advocates urge Medicare enrollees to restrict their shopping this fall to four- and five-rated plans, of which plenty are available in most parts of the country. “If a plan consistently gets four or five stars, all other things being equal it will be a high performer,” says Joe Baker, president of the Medicare Rights Center.

Few Medicare enrollees roll up their sleeves to shop, however. A study by Kaiser found that, on average, just 13% of enrollees voluntarily switched their Advantage or drug plans over four recent enrollment periods. And focus groups with seniors conducted by the foundation last May found that few pay attention to the star ratings.

“Seniors said they don’t use the ratings because they don’t feel they reflect their experiences with plans,” said Gretchen Jacobson, associate director of the foundation’s Medicare program. “Even when we told them that their plan only has two stars, many just wanted to stay in that plan.”

Advocates say the star ratings are just a starting point for smart shoppers.

They say you should check to make sure health providers you want to see are in a plan’s network. You should also consider how you would react if any of those providers disappeared during the 12 months that you are locked into the plan. Advantage plans can—and do—drop providers. UnitedHealth Group, the industry’s largest player, made headlines last year when it dropped thousands of doctors in 10 states. Advantage plans in Florida, Pennsylvania, California and Delaware also terminated provider relationships.

Also be sure to examine the prescription drug “formularies” in your plan—the rules under which your medications are covered. And talk with your doctors about any plan you are considering, especially if you see specialists for a chronic condition.

The Medicare memorandum to plans also underscores the importance of appealing denied claims, Baker says. “Appeal, appeal, appeal—it’s like ‘location, location, location’ in real estate.”

TIME Health Care

The Price of Staying Alive For the Next 3 Hours

Stayin' alive—and cheap at the price
Stayin' alive—and cheap at the price ZU_09; Getty Images

A new study suggests a little spending now can buy you a lot of time later

How much do you reckon you’d pay not to be dead three hours from now? That probably depends. If you’re 25 and healthy, a whole lot. If you’re 95 and sickly, maybe not so much. But for people in one part of the world—the former East Germany—the cost has been figured out, and it’s surprisingly cheap: three hours of life will set you back (or your government, really) just one euro, or a little below a buck-thirty at current exchange rates.

That’s the conclusion of a new study out of Germany’s Max Planck Institute, and it says a lot about the power of a little bit of money now to save a lot of suffering later—with implications for all manner of public health challenges, including the current Ebola crisis.

The new findings are a result of one of the greatest, real-time longitudinal studies ever conducted, one that began the moment the Berlin Wall fell, on Nov. 9 1989. Before that year, there were two Germanys not just politically, but epidemiologically. Life expectancy in the western half of the country was 76 years; in the poorer, sicker east, it was 73.5. But after unification began, social spending in the East began rising, from the equivalent of €2,100 per person per year to €5,100 by the year 2000. In that same period, the difference in lifespan across the old divide went in the opposite direction, shrinking from 2.5 years to just one year as the east Germans gained more time. Crunch those numbers and you get the three extra hours of extra life per person per euro per year.

“Without the pension payments of citizens in east and west converging to equivalent levels,” said Max Planck demographer Tobias Vogt in a statement, “the gap in life expectancy could not have been closed.” Increased public spending, Vogt adds, is often framed as an unfortunate knock-on effect of longer life. “But in contrast,” he says, “our analysis shows that public spending can also be seen as an investment in longer life.”

The idea that generous, tactical spending now can be both a money-saver and lifesaver is one that health policy experts tirelessly make—and that people in charge of approving the budgets too often ignore. Bill Gates often makes the point that $1 billion spent to eradicate polio over the next few years will save $50 billion over the next 20 years, not just because there will no longer be any cases of the disease to treat, but because the global vaccination programs which are necessary just to contain the virus can be stopped altogether when that virus is no more.

As TIME reported in September, British inventor Marc Koska made a splash at the TEDMed conference in Washington DC when he unveiled his K1 syringe—an auto-destruct needle that locks after it’s used just once and breaks if too much force is used to pull the plunger back out. That prevents needle re-use—and that in turn not only reduces blood-borne pathogens from being spread, it does so at a saving. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), $1 spent on K1 syringes saves $14.57 in health care costs down the line—or $280 for a $20 order of the shots.

All across the health care spectrum, such leveraging is possible. Critics of the Affordable Care Act have slammed the law for the cost of the preventative services it provides, and while it’s way too early to determine exactly how successful the law will be, the encouraging stabilization in the growth of health costs suggests that something, at least, is working.

Global health officials are making a similar, though more urgent, preventative argument concerning the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Americans are rightly jumpy over the few cases that have landed on our shores, but the 1,000 new infections per week that are occurring in the hot-spot nations of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone make our concerns look small. Frighteningly, according to the WHO’s newest projections, that figure will explode to 10,000 cases per week by December if the resources are not deployed to contain the epidemic fast.

“We either stop Ebola now,” WHO’s Anthony Banbury said in a stark presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Sept. 14, “or we face an entirely unprecedented situation for which we do not have a plan.”

Suiting up and wading into the Ebola infection zone is a decidedly bigger and scarier deal than spending an extra euro on public health or an extra dollar for a new syringe. But the larger idea of intervention today preventing far larger suffering tomorrow remains one of medicine’s enduring truths. We lose sight of it at our peril.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 15

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Americans are often oblivious to the role of farming in their lives. To get the smart policies needed to feed our nation and the world, we must reconnect people to agriculture.

By Ian Pigott in the Des Moines Register

2. Even employer-paid health insurance can worsen poverty and increase inequality.

By David Blumenthal in Commonwealth Fund

3. Is “feminist marketing” an oxymoron?

By Chandra Johnson in the Deseret News

4. Helsinki has a plan cities everywhere could try: Combine the sharing economy, transit and mobile technology to eliminate cars.

By Randy Rieland in Smithsonian

5. America’s best bet in Africa is a strong relationship with Nigeria.

By Daniel Donovan in Foreign Policy Blogs

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY health insurance

Why You May Have to Spend More on Health Care Next Year

141014_FF_OPENENROLLMENT
Larry Washburn—Getty Images/fStop

When open enrollment kicks off at your workplace this fall, you should see only modest premium hikes. But you'll also come across more plans with higher out-of-pocket costs and surcharges to cover your spouse.

Fall is enrollment season for many people who get insurance through their workplace. Premium increases for 2015 plans are expected to be modest on average, but the shift toward higher out-of-pocket costs overall for consumers will continue as employers try to keep a lid on their costs and incorporate health law changes.

Experts anticipate that premiums will rise a modest 4% in 2015, on average, slightly higher than last year but lower than typical recent increases.

“That’s really low,” says Tracy Watts, a senior partner at benefits consultant Mercer.

Even so, more employers say they’re making changes to their health plans in 2015 to rein in cost growth; 68% said they plan to do so in 2015, compared with 55% just two years earlier, according to preliminary data from Mercer’s annual employer benefits survey.

They are motivated in part by upcoming changes mandated by the health law. Starting in January, companies that employ 100 workers or more generally have to offer those who work at least 30 hours a week health insurance or face penalties.

“The more people you cover, the more it’s going to cost,” says Watts.

In addition, experts say, employers are ramping up efforts to avoid a 40% excise tax on expensive health plans—those with premiums that exceed $10,200 for individuals or $27,500 for families—that will take effect in 2018.

More employees can expect to be offered high-deductible health plans linked to health savings accounts or health reimbursement arrangements in 2015. Nearly three-quarters of companies with more than 1,000 workers offer such plans, according to the 2014 Towers Watson/National Business Group on Health employer health care survey. Nine percent said they planned to add them in 2015.

For a growing number of employees, those plans may be the only ones available through work. For 2015, 30% of large employers said they expected to offer only an account-based plan to workers, nearly double the percentage that did so in 2014, the Towers Watson/NBGH survey found.

For some consumers, however, those plans raise concerns about the cost of care. A new survey by The Associated Press and the NORC Center For Public Affairs Research found that people with high deductible plans were twice as likely as those with traditional health insurance to report that they did not go to a doctor when sick or injured because of concerns about the costs.

When employers shift toward plans with higher deductibles, they often try to sweeten the deal for employees by offering to put money into the financial accounts to help defray the workers’ increased cost, says Brian Marcotte, president and CEO of the National Business Group on Health. The extra cash—an average $600 per employee—is often tied to wellness activities such as agreeing to get health screenings, says Marcotte. As employees evaluate their health plan offerings this fall, it’s worth checking to see if such incentives are offered.

Also this year, workers may find it increasingly expensive to cover their spouses, especially if they have coverage available through their own jobs.

Employers have been increasing workers’ costs to cover dependents, including spouses, in recent years. Nearly half of employers say they’ve hiked employee contributions for dependent coverage, and another 19% plan to do so in 2015, according to the Towers Watson/NBGH survey. Upcoming increases are particularly aimed at spouses, including $50 to $100 monthly surcharges for spousal coverage, says Sandy Ageloff, a senior consultant at benefits consultant Towers Watson.

“Legally under the Affordable Care Act, plans can’t exclude coverage for kids,” says Ageloff. “But they’re really trying to shift the onus back on to spouses.”

This fall, employees who work for small businesses may see fewer changes in their coverage than those who work for large companies. In March, the Obama administration announced that individuals and small businesses with plans that didn’t comply with health law coverage and cost requirements could be extended until 2017.

As many as 80% of companies with up to 50 employees opted to renew their non-compliant plans for 2014, says David Chase, national health care policy director at the Small Business Majority, an advocacy group. A similar percentage will likely try to do so this year as well, he says.

“That’s going to be a popular option for folks, if their states allow it,” Chase says. It’s up to states to determine whether insurers can continue to sell small group plans that don’t meet the requirements of the health law.

There could be a downside, however. “Sticking with the same plan doesn’t mean sticking with the same premium,” Chase says. “Those premiums could go up more than ACA-compliant plans.”

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

MONEY retirement planning

8 Things You Must Do Before You Retire

sébastien thibault

Getting ready to retire? The moves you make in the months before you call it quits can smooth the way to a secure future.

After working diligently for more than 30 years—so you could set yourself up financially for your golden years—the glow of retirement is finally on the horizon. Alas, it’s not time to relax just yet.

Each day more than 10,000 baby boomers enter retirement. Yet only around one-quarter of workers 55 and older say they’re doing a good job preparing for the next phase, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The last 12 months before you call it a career is especially critical to putting your retirement on a prosperous path. It’s time to get your portfolio, health care, and other finances in order so you can enjoy your new life.

THE TURNING-POINT CHECKLIST

12 Months Out:

Dial back on stocks now. You still need the growth that equities provide, but even a 15% market slide in the year before you retire can erase four years’ worth of income. Cap stock exposure to around 50% in your sixties, advises Rande Spiegelman, vice president of financial planning at Schwab Center for Financial Research.

Raise cash. Your paychecks are about to stop. So as you downshift from stocks, move that money into a savings or money market account to fund at least one year of expenses, says Judith Ward, T. Rowe Price senior financial planner.

Set a realistic retirement budget. Use the worksheet on Fidelity’s free retirement-income planner to list all of your fixed and discretionary expenses. Then use T. Rowe Price’s free retirement-income calculator to see how safe that level of spending is likely to be, based on the size of your nest egg and age.

6 Months Out:

Play out Social Security scenarios. You can claim Social Security at 62, but if you can hold off until 70 your checks will be 76% bigger. Tool around FinancialEngines.com’s free Social Security Income Planner to find the best strategy for you.

Figure out how you’ll pay for health care. Check if your company offers retirees medical, long-term care, and other insurance coverage. If you won’t get health insurance and aren’t yet 65 (when you qualify for Medicare), then compare plans offered via the Affordable Care Act at eHealthInsurance.com. Or use COBRA, where you can stay on your employer plan up to 18 months after leaving.

3 MONTHS OUT:

Begin the rollover process. In a small 401(k) plan, average fund expenses can run north of 0.6% of assets. You can cut those fees at least in half by shifting into index funds at a low-cost IRA provider. See if your plan provides free access to investment advisers to help you decide.

Sign up for Medicare. Nearing 65? You can enroll for Medicare up to three months before turning that age. Also, figure in supplemental plans to cover expenses that Medicare does not, such as dental care and prescription drugs.

Get a running start. Put your post-career itinerary into action. Research volunteer groups that you want to join, reach out to contacts if you plan to keep a hand in work, start a new exercise routine, or begin planning that big trip.

MONEY health insurance

You Can Now Buy Health Insurance at Walmart. Should You?

America's largest retailer is expanding more aggressively into the insurance market, hoping to become the go-to place for all your health care needs. But the store is far from the only place to get your coverage questions answered.

UPDATED: 5PM ET

Want help choosing a health insurance plan? Superstore Walmart is betting that many consumers do—and that they will visit a big-box store for guidance.

The company announced this morning that it is teaming up with the health comparison website DirectHealth.com to house insurance agents in 2,700 of its 4,300 U.S. stores. The agents will help shoppers understand and compare individual insurance plans as well as private Medicare plans, including drug, supplemental, and Advantage policies.

The agents will be in stores from this Friday, October 10, through December 7, a time frame that captures the kick-off of the annual enrollment periods for both individual health plans and private Medicare policies. Medicare open enrollment starts October 15; you can begin shopping for an individual policy for 2015 on November 15.

“For years, our customers have told us that there is too much complexity when it comes to understanding their health insurance options,” said Labeed Diab, president of Walmart’s U.S. health and wellness group, in a press release announcing the program. Since 2005, Walmart has hosted insurance agents from individual insurers in some stores to answer questions and enroll customers in health plans. This new program expands on that.

A bid for more health care business

This move isn’t the first time Walmart has dabbled in health care. The company has been slowly adding retail clinics to many of its locations, letting shoppers get primary care such as strep tests and treatment for ear infections at the store. Walmart’s total number of clinics, though, falls far short of what pharmacy chains CVS or Walgreens offer.

By adding insurance agents to its stores, the retailer appears to be aiming to get consumers to think of Walmart as a one-stop resource for health care. Walmart will not receive commissions on the sale of health plans, the Associated Press reports, but hopes the agents will attract consumers who will then rely on the stores for other health care needs, such as prescriptions. The agents will receive a commission from the insurers whenever a patient enrolls in a plan in the store, The Washington Post reports.

Where else to get help

In announcing the program, Walmart noted that many consumers have difficulty understanding their health plans. While that’s true, Walmart will be just one of many places where you can find guidance. Other comparison websites, such as ehealthinsurance.com and gohealthinsurance.com, already offer online and call-in assistance, though neither have retail locations around the country.

So should you head to Walmart face-to-face help with an individual or Medicare plan? The store will offer individual plans from 300 carriers, and Medicare plans from 13 firms. So you should be able to find options in your area. But keep in mind what other help is out there.

•For individual health insurance plans: Unless you qualify for a special enrollment period because you, say, lost your employer-based coverage or got divorced, you are generally locked out from buying a new individual health insurance plan or switching policies until the annual open enrollment period, which this year begins November 15 and runs through February 15. You’ll be able to buy a policy either through your state insurance exchange (find yours at healthcare.gov), an insurer, a comparison website, or an insurance agent.

Once open enrollment begins, many community centers and non-profits around the country will be staffed with counselors, navigators, or other assisters who can offer explain a plan’s details (though many aren’t supposed to tell you which plan is best for you). Find a group offering assistance in your area at localhelp.healthcare.gov. For questions about a plan sold on the public exchange, Healthcare.gov lists the 1-800 number for your state.

Unless you qualify for a subsidized policy under Obamacare (in which case you may be required to buy through an exchange), you should compare policies on the exchanges with those sold directly by insurers. You can find a local insurance agent who can sell you an on- or off-exchange individual policy at nahu.org. Comparison websites also list details for both types of plans, though there’s no guarantee every off-exchange plan available from an insurer will be listed on each site.

One caveat: the in-store agents will be able to explain plan details and help with comparison shopping, but they won’t be able to actually enroll you in an individual plan in the store, according to a Walmart spokesperson. To sign up you’ll need to call Direct Health, Walmart’s partner, or go to the website. (The agents will be able to enroll you in a Medicare plan while you’re in the store.)

Keep in mind that while DirectHealth.com is required by law to list every plan available through the exchange, it won’t necessarily include the full details for each plan. Instead, the site attempts to determine which plans may best suit you, says Michael Mahoney, senior vice president of marketing at GoHealth, which powers the DirectHealth.com comparison site. “We want to make sure people have the right amount of choice without overwhelming them,” he says. You decide if you’d rather see all your options, or only a limited choice.

•For private Medicare plans: You can make changes to your Medicare drug or Medicare Advantage plan starting on October 15. It is a good idea to analyze your current plan and new options every year instead of sticking with what you’ve got, since plans and premiums change and new options appear.

The Medicare Rights Center offers a national help line (800-333-4114) to help seniors understand the program and determine if their income qualifies them for other resources, such as a prescription drug subsidy. Your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program offers one-on-one assistance to Medicare beneficiaries and their families. Find your state’s at shiptalk.org.

The medicare.gov tool run by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services lets you compare plans in your local area. This tool also lists every possible plan available to you, which is not the case with Walmart’s program. For example, a 67-year-old woman who lives in one Northern California zip code and takes no drugs has 11 Part D prescription drug plans options listed on DirectHealth.com. On medicare.gov, that same woman would find more than 30 choices.

 

MONEY Medicare

One Simple Way for Retirees to Save on Prescription Drugs

Hand picking one pill out of a row of pills
If you don't shop around for a drug plan, you may be leaving money on the table. Julie Toy—Getty Images

Just over one in 10 seniors decide to switch Medicare drug plans during fall open enrollment. But nearly half of those who do save money. Here's how to shop for the best deal.

Your Medicare prescription drug plan sent you a letter recently. Chances are, you didn’t read it—and that could be costing you money.

Health insurance companies must send an annual notice of changes for the coming year to Part D prescription drug and Part C Medicare Advantage plans. The notice, which must be delivered to you by Sept. 30 each year, details changes in premiums and co-pays, and lets you know whether your medication will be covered in the year ahead.

The notice comes just before the annual plan enrollment period, which kicks off on Oct. 15 and runs until Dec. 7. It’s your signal that it’s time to re-shop your coverage.

But a study released last fall by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that, on average, just 13% of enrollees voluntarily switched their drug plans over four recent enrollment periods. The switching rate is nearly identical for those in Medicare Advantage plans, the all-in-one managed-care option offered to Medicare beneficiaries.

That’s unfortunate, since plenty of people are leaving money on the table. The Kaiser study found that 46% of plan switchers saved at least 5% the following year, mainly on premiums.

Seniors who use traditional fee-for-service Medicare need only check on their drug coverage. Most Medicare Advantage plans wrap in drug coverage, so enrollees can usually make a single shopping trip there, too.

Medicare cost inflation has been moderate for several years, and should remain so in 2015. The average Part D premium will drop from $39.88 in 2014 to $38.95 next year, according to Avalere Health, a research and consulting firm.

But a close look at the 10 most popular plans shows why it is important to evaluate coverage annually. Premium changes will vary significantly. For example, average premiums for Aetna’s Medicare Rx Saver plan will fall 31%, while WellCare’s Classic plan will jump 52%, on average.

Plenty of low-cost options are available. Five of the top plans will have premiums under $30, led by Humana/Walmart Rx, which will have an average premium of $15.67.

“It’s an ongoing pricing game,” says Dan Mendelson, Avalere’s chief executive officer. “The plans always try to price as low as possible and below the market and then they are forced to increase premiums. It means that now, more than ever, people need to go out and shop and take a careful look at what they are paying.”

Premiums aren’t the only factor to consider. Fewer drug plans will have zero deductibles next year, Avalere reports. It’s also important to make sure the drugs you take are covered—and under what circumstances.

In many cases, the best deals will be offered by plans using preferred pharmacy networks, so make sure the pharmacy option is convenient for you, because drugs will be more expensive if you use non-preferred delivery options.

Finally, pay attention to how your drugs will be covered if you enter the “doughnut hole,” the coverage gap that begins after you and your drug plan have spent a certain amount for covered drugs. Most plans don’t include gap coverage, and those that do charge higher premiums. But the size of the gap is being shrunk under a provision of the Affordable Care Act, and is scheduled to disappear in 2020.

Next year the gap starts at $2,960 (up from $2,850 this year) and ends after you’ve spent $4,700 (up from $4,550 this year).

Seniors who enter the gap also get discounts on brand-name and generic drugs, and those breaks will be larger next year. Enrollees will pay 45% of the cost of brand-name drugs in 2015 (down from 47.5% this year) and 65 percent of the cost of generic drugs (down from 72% this year).

How to get help

Use the online Medicare Plan Finder tool to find plans that match your needs. You also can call Medicare (1-800-Medicare) for assistance with plan selection.

“If you’re not comfortable going online, they can review your medications and match up plans with you,” says Frederic Riccardi, director of client services for the Medicare Rights Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Riccardi advises people to purchase plans through Medicare, rather than going directly to the plan providers. “It creates an administrative record at Medicare of what you wanted to do, in case of any problems with your enrollment.”

Free one-on-one help is available from your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), a network of non-profit Medicare counseling services.

The Medicare Rights Center also offers free counseling by phone (1-800-333-4114).

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