This fall, as Americans make their choices in a host of local, state and national elections, including 2016 presidential, gubernatorial and congressional races, seniors and those eligible for Medicare must pay special attention to the decisions they face during another important election— the Medicare Annual Election Period (AEP).

During this year’s Medicare AEP, which lasts from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, it’s important for people with Medicare to understand that the choice they make can affect their health throughout 2017. As with any major decision, thoughtful research will go a long way toward making the best care coverage choice that maximizes value based on your individual health needs.

The first step in making your choice matter is reviewing your current Medicare health plan and analyzing how much you’ve spent on health care during the past year, including hospital expenses, pharmacy costs and doctor bills. This will help to determine, to the best of your ability, the health care expenses you can expect in 2017 and whether your current Medicare health plan still meets your needs.

Similar to voting for elected officials, it is important to research all available choices, determine their impact on your life and be comfortable with your choice. Options for people with Medicare include:

  • Original Medicare (Parts A and B), basic coverage for medical expenses without coverage for most prescriptions. There is cost-sharing, or copays, coinsurance and deductibles for coverage through Original Medicare.
  • Medicare Advantage (Part C), which covers everything Original Medicare covers and may include extra benefits, services and often prescription drug coverage through a private insurer. Medicare Advantage is used instead of Original Medicare for those who sign up for these health plans.
  • Medicare Prescription Drug Plans (Part D), coverage for prescription medications, which may lower prescription drug expenses.
  • Medicare Supplement Plans, which pay some costs not paid by Original Medicare, like deductibles and coinsurance.

Medicare Advantage plans are steadily gaining popularity, with the number of enrollees more than tripling since 2004 to 17.6 million or nearly a third of Medicare beneficiaries, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Compared to Original Medicare, Medicare Advantage plans often include lower copays, lower or no deductibles, and zero or low monthly plan premiums – although you must continue to pay your Part B premiums. Some of these plans offer additional features designed to meet members’ needs, such as dental, hearing and vision coverage, a nurse advice line and fitness programs.

Once you choose the type of Medicare plan that best fits your needs, research the costs, benefits and network of doctors and hospitals associated with each plan. Make sure your hospital and doctors are included. Features such as wellness programs and personal care management services can be valuable in helping you achieve or maintain the level of health you want throughout 2017.

One easy way to compare Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug Plans is by taking a close look at Medicare Star quality ratings, a one- to five-star scale, with five stars awarded to the highest quality plans. Resources, like http://www.Medicare.gov and www.humana-Medicare.com, can help you make the right choice as you identify the best plan for you before the Dec. 7 enrollment deadline.

You can also call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) or TTY: 1-877-486-2048 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 2017 Medicare plan information.

With any election, it is important to remember that your decision can have a long-term impact for the future. So, this fall, be prepared to make the choice that helps you take the next step toward being a healthier you.

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