For some older adults, private Medicare Advantage plans next year will offer a host of new benefits, such as transportation to medical appointments, home-delivered meals, wheelchair ramps, bathroom grab bars or air conditioners for asthma sufferers.
But the new benefits will not be widely available, and they won't be easy to find.
Of the 3,700 plans across the country next year, only 273 in 21 states will offer at least one. About 7 percent of Advantage members -- 1.5 million people -- will have access, Medicare officials estimate.
That means even for the savviest shoppers it will be a challenge to figure out which plans offer the new benefits and who qualifies for them.
Medicare officials have touted the expansion as historic and an innovative way to keep seniors healthy and independent. Despite that enthusiasm, a full listing of the new services is not available on the web-based "Medicare Plan Finder," the government tool used by beneficiaries, counselors and insurance agents to sort through dozens of plan options.
Even if people sign up for those plans, they won't all be eligible for all the benefits. Advantage members will need a recommendation from a health care provider in the plan's network. Then they may need to have a certain chronic health problem, a recent hospitalization or meet other eligibility requirements.
Medicare counselors from California to Maine say key details are not included on the government's website. In some cases, if insurers offer the new benefits, the plan finder "will indicate 'yes' or 'no,'" said Georgia Gerdes a health care choices specialist at AgeOptions, the Area Agency on Aging in Oak Park, Ill., outside Chicago. That's hardly enough, she said.
"There is a lot of information on the plan finder, but there is a lot of information missing that requires beneficiaries to do more research," said Deb McFarland, Medicare services program supervisor at the Southern Maine Agency on Aging.
Nonetheless, officials say the added benefits will help Advantage members prevent costly hospitalizations. Federal approval of additional benefits is "one of the most significant changes made to the Medicare program," Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, told an insurers' meeting last month. She said she expects plans to expand services in coming years.
Medicare Advantage plans, which are an alternative to traditional Medicare, serve 21 million beneficiaries and limit their out-of-pocket expenses. But they also restrict members to a network of doctors, hospitals and other medical providers. They often offer benefits not available in traditional Medicare, such as dental and vision care, hearing aids and gym memberships.
The federal government pays a set amount to the plans to help cover the cost of each member. The Trump administration gave insurers more money to spend on benefits next year -- an average pay raise of 3.4 percent, seven times more than the rate of increase in 2018.
Enrollment is underway for Medicare Advantage plans, as well as for people in traditional Medicare who want to buy a policy for drug coverage. The deadline for choosing either type of plan is Dec. 7.
Among the new benefits that some Medicare Advantage plans said they will offer are:
Trips to the pharmacy or fitness center in addition to doctor's appointments for plan members, depending on where they live or their health conditions. A monthly or quarterly allowance for over-the-counter pharmacy products such as cold and allergy medications, eye drops, vitamins, supplements and compression stockings. House calls by doctors or other health care providers, under certain conditions. A home health care aide for a limited number of hours to help with dressing, eating and other daily activities, possibly including household chores and light housekeeping.
However, plans offering these and other services will likely have only some of the options and will have different eligibility criteria and other limitations. The same services likely won't be available in every county the plan serves.
For example, next year an estimated 150,000 Humana Medicare Advantage members in Texas and South Florida -- two of the 43 states Humana serves -- who cannot be left alone at home will be able to get a free in-home personal care aide for up to 42 hours a year, so that their regular caregiver can get a break. And more than half of the members in Cigna-HealthSpring Advantage plans will have access to free transportation services in all but five of the 16 states and the District of Columbia where the company sells coverage.
To find these supplemental benefits, seniors can use the online plan finder. After they enter their ZIP code and get a list of plans available locally, they can click on a plan name. That will take them to another page that offers more details about coverage, including a tab for health and drug plan benefits. That page might say whether the new services are offered.
But often the website will simply indicate that specific benefits are available -- and perhaps not name them -- and advise consumers to contact the plan for more information. A Medicare spokesperson confirmed that there is currently not an indicator on the plan finder for plans offering these expanded health-related supplemental benefits.
In addition to extra benefits, other variables should be considered when choosing an Advantage plan, such as which health care providers and pharmacies participate in a plan's network, which drugs are covered and the costs.
Where available, several insurers say the new services will be free with no increase in monthly premiums.
"We certainly believe that all of the ancillary benefits we provide will help keep our members healthy, which is good for them, and it's good for us in the long run," said Steve Warner, head of the Medicare Advantage product team at UnitedHealthcare, which insures about 5 million seniors or 1 in 4 Medicare Advantage members.
Insurers are betting that services will eventually pay for themselves.
Dawn Maroney, consumer president at Alignment Healthcare, which serves eight counties in Southern California, said it's much cheaper to give an air conditioner to someone with congestive heart failure to keep that patient healthy than to pay for more expensive medical treatment.
But if the new benefits are such a good idea, they should be available to the majority of older adults in traditional Medicare, said David Lipschutz, a senior policy attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy.
For free help with Medicare Advantage and drug plan enrollment, contact the federally funded State Health Insurance Assistance Program (www.shiptacenter.org), the Medicare Rights Center, 800-333-4114 or its website, www.medicareinteractive.org. The Medicare Plan Finder website is available at https://www.medicare.gov/find-a-plan/questions/home.aspx or call 800-633-4227.