The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Your Medicare Coverage Choices
I remember when the hospital staff explained my mother’s Medicare coverage to me. I kept asking, “What does Part A cover? How is Part B different?” I couldn’t remember anything. I’m sure the stress of my mother dying had a lot to do with it, but it seemed like I was a child going back to school trying to learn my A, B, C’s. I should have called the Medicare coverage helpline at 800-633-4227, but I didn’t know.
The Alphabet of Medicare Coverage
Understanding the building blocks of how Medicare works begins with understanding the Medicare alphabet. We start with A. A is not for Apple but for Medicare Hospital coverage. When Medicare first started in 1965, there was only hospital coverage. Hospital costs are generally the largest. Seniors in the 1960s were being devastated by hospital medical costs and the availability of insurance at the time. Congress created Medicare.
Medicare Part A costs nothing if you have worked and paid the Medicare tax for at least 40 quarters (or 10 years). The quarters do not need to be consecutive, only total up to 40 quarters.
Medicare Part A Hospital Coverage
Part A covers the hospital 100% for 60 days after the deductible is met. Currently, the Part A deductible for 2022 is $1,556. This deductible is per event in a 60 day period. It is possible to have more than one deductible in 60 days if the medical issues for hospitalization are unrelated. For example, you had a heart attack one month and fell off a ladder the next month. Two unrelated events sent you to the hospital within 60 days, and so you paid two $1,556 deductibles. Not likely, but certainly possible.
Part A Coinsurance
If you continue to remain after the first 60 days in the hospital, you have a $389 copayment per day from day 61-90. Again, hospital stays of that length are infrequent. Nonetheless, you are still responsible for that cost if it occurs and you have no other insurance, like a Medigap plan.
Part A Lifetime Reserve Days
If you go beyond 90 days, there is a bank of “lifetime reserve days” from which you can draw. You have a total of 60 lifetime reserve days. These lifetime reserve days are exactly what it means. Once the 60 days are used up, you have no more. You pay 100% of the inpatient hospital costs after the 90 days going forward.
Medicare Hospital Coverage
Part A covers everything that happens in the hospital during your stay, except some doctor visits. As for the copays, coinsurance, etc., a Medicare Supplement (Medigap) policy may cover those costs. Medicare Advantage/Part C configures the copays in various ways depending upon the policy. Medigap and Medicare Advantage are covered in detail in other blogs.
Medicare Part B Coverage
Part B covers everything other than inpatient stays at the hospital, even if a procedure takes place at a hospital. Medicare Part B coverage excludes medications usually unless the medications are the type administered in a doctor’s office or through durable medical equipment, such as insulin through an insulin pump.
Medicare Part B coverage is for doctor visits and outpatient procedures. The doctor visits can also be the doctor visits while in the hospital.
Part B Costs
Medicare Part B coverage does cost something. Currently, the Part B premium is $170.10 for 2022 for most people. The Part B premium had the most significant increase in Medicare’s history from last year, $148.50.
For approximately 4% of the Medicare demographic, the Part B premium is more because of your income. Please, confer our blog on the IRMAA Tax.
Part B covers 80% of the doctor and outpatient costs without limit. There is no upper dollar limit on Medicare benefits as long as the procedures are “medically necessary” and occur at a Medicare-approved facility or with a doctor who accepts Medicare assignment. On the flip side, however, you also have a 20% coinsurance you must pay, which has no cap or limit. That is drastically different from what you probably experienced with your employer’s health plan. Most plans have a maximum out-of-pocket (MOOP). Those MOOPs may be as high as $10,000 or $15,000, but you have a cap at some point. Medicare Part B coverage is an unlimited 20% coinsurance. There is no cap or limit. Another reason to get some sort of additional insurance coverage.
Medicare Part C Coverage
Keeping with the alphabet theme, Medicare Part C coverage is next. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (BBA) established a new Part C for the Medicare program. Part C was known then as Medicare+Choice (M+C) program, which started in 1999. Many times clients will ask if Medicare Part C or Advantage are new. There have been many iterations of Medicare Advantage with variable names. Part C was only in limited markets when it first began. Omaha, Lincoln, Council Bluffs, eastern Nebraska, and Western Iowa were not the hotbeds where the Part C programs were initiated or grew. Of course, that is changed.
The Medicare+Choice was renamed Medicare Advantage (MA) under the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 (MMA). The MMA updated and improved the choice of plans for beneficiaries under Part C and changed the way benefits are established, and payments are made. The MMA broadened Medicare Part C coverage. MMA enabled Medicare Advantage to also include Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage for the first time.
Medicare Advantage Design
Medicare partnered with health insurance companies to create Medicare Advantage plans. The Part C plans need to offer at least as much as Original Medicare Part A & B in the overall actuarial cost sense, but they could also offer more, such as dental, vision, hearing, etc. Medicare regulates and monitors the plans. Medicare Part C coverage must be as good as Original Medicare.
The Part C plans are Medicare. That is why it is called “Medicare Part C.” Medicare Advantage is Medicare administered by a private insurance company approved by Medicare.
Medicare Part C/Medicare Advantage is usually offered at little or no premium over the Medicare Part B premium payment. The plans, however, have copays and coinsurance with a maximum out-of-pocket for the total copays.
Medicare Part D Coverage
The final letter in this Medicare alphabet is Part D for Medicare prescription drug coverage. Until 2003 Medicare did not sponsor prescription drug coverage, though some supplements had their own private programs. After the MMA legislation, Medicare worked with insurance and pharmaceutical companies to establish drug plans that provided medications at reasonable rates and distributed the costs fairly among participants. The premium for each plan varies.
The Dreaded Donut Hole
The Medicare coverage for Part D plans has four phases. To start, there is the deductible. The current deductible on most plans in 2022 is $480. During the second or initial phase, the beneficiary covers about a fourth of the actual cost of the medications once the annual deductible is met. The plan pays the other three-fourths.
If the client and the plan payout $4,430 in copays and cost from the plan, then the Medicare beneficiary moves into the 3rd phase, which is the Gap (or Donut Hole). At this point, the pharmaceutical companies discount the medications to 25% of their actual cost. The beneficiary then pays the total cost of the drugs until he reaches $7,050 of combined payments out of his pocket.
Then he has crossed over to the 4th and final stage–Catastrophic. In the catastrophic phase, you will pay the greater of 5% of drug costs or $3.98 for generic and $9.98 for non-generic medications. You will pay these amounts until the end of the year. On the first of the year, the whole cycle starts over.
What Medicare Covers and What Medicare Does Not Cover
Medicare coverage is easier to define by saying what it does not cover.
No Long-Term Care
Original Medicare–just Part A and Part B–does not cover long-term care or is sometimes referred to as custodial care. Medicare covers skilled nursing facilities, and skilled nursing facilities are mostly long-term care facilities. But the purpose of the skilling nursing facility with Medicare is in the service of curing an illness and is only temporary. Skilled nursing facility care is limited to 100 days. It is not custodial care.
Custodial care is needed when you can no longer perform activities of daily living, such as bathing, toileting, transferring, dressing, eating, etc. Medicare does not cover long-term care for custodial purposes.
Medicare does not cover routine dental care, such as teeth cleaning, fillings, extraction, crowns, root canals, etc. Yes, many Medicare Advantage / Part C plans cover dental but not Original Medicare Parts A & B. This is a common confusion.
In keeping with the dental theme, Original Medicare does not cover dentures. Some Medicare Advantage plans do. Medicaid in many states covers dentures, but Medicare does not, though you may purchase a separate and private dental plan for that purpose.
No Cosmetic Surgery
Original Medicare does not cover cosmetic surgery. Breast augmentation, hair implants, botox injections are not on the list of Medicare authorized treatments. That being said, there are exceptions depending upon circumstances. In other words, how “medically necessary” the treatment is.
One of my clients called me ecstatic because she was approved for breast reduction. I must admit breast reduction was not one of the things I gave a great deal of thought to. I remember my grandmother explaining to me once in an unusual turn of events the challenges well-endowed women have, but it was never something I thoroughly appreciated. However, my client explained to me why it was “medically necessary,” and Medicare concurred. The breast reduction was approved, but generally speaking, there is no Medicare coverage for cosmetic surgery.
Original Medicare does not cover acupuncture. I never would have imagined how popular acupuncture is, but I have gotten that question many times over the year. Medicare Part A or B do not cover acupuncture, though more and more Advantage plans offer some acupuncture, usually in conjunction with chiropractic care.
No Hearing Aids
Original Medicare does not cover hearing aids or their fitting. Anyone who has even a remote experience with hearing aides knows how incredibly expensive hearing aides are. Neither Part A nor B covers hearing aides. Again many Advantage plans do cover various aspects of audiology and hearing aids. Thus the mass appeal of Medicare Advantage over Original Medicare.
No Routine Foot Care
Original Medicare does not cover “routine foot care.” Yes, Medicare covers feet and the rest of your body, but “routine foot care” is a particular thing. Primarily routine foot care involves cutting or removing corns and calluses, trimming, cutting, or clipping nails, and hygienic and preventive maintenance, like cleaning and soaking your feet. This type of care is vital for some people with specific health issues to prevent infection or damage to their feet. Routine foot care is absolutely critical for those with diabetes and neuropathy to avoid infection and other problems that could result in amputation. Neither Part A nor Part B covers routine foot care. Many Medicare Advantage / Part C plans do cover routine foot care.
One of my clients was quite a large man. He was also diabetic with many other complications. He could not trim his own toenails. He very much needed podiatric care. As a matter of fact, he was embarrassed by the whole situation and neglected the trimming for a while. As you can guess, his toes became infected, which resulted in losing some toes.
While these are not small or unimportant areas of health, Medicare does not cover them. Medicare, however, covers virtually everything else that is “medically necessary.”
Medicare Coverage For Experimental Treatments
Experimental treatments or clinical trials, however, are in their own category. Medicare may cover experimental treatments. Though that being said, most “experimental” treatments are voluntary programs supported by funding from pharmaceutical companies or other institutions. Those can only be spoken to on a case-by-case basis. Medicare may cover some or all of the treatment depending upon the type of treatment. Indeed, those aspects Medicare typically would be covered.
Many years ago, a man was referred to me because he had had some difficulty around this issue of clinical trials. He had been on a Medicare Advantage plan with a previous agent. He could only get into the clinical trial without paying for a large part of it was to return to Original Medicare. After much difficulty with Medicare, Medicare granted him an exception to return to Original Medicare without waiting for the Annual Election Period in October.
The next problem was finding a Part D prescription drug plan that would cover his medications. That’s where I came in. That matter was straightforward, but the difficulty he had getting some Medicare coverage for the experimental treatment was interesting and scary, which ultimately prolonged his life by many years.
More Information in Other Blogs
There is much more to say about Medicare. There is, even more, to say about Parts A, B, C, & D; however, over 2,000 words in just this article is more than enough for anyone to read about the wonders of Medicare in a brief sitting. I recommend searching in the search tool at the top of the blog section for more information on each Part of Medicare and the sundry-related topics, but before going on, you must understand the foundational building blocks of Medicare.
When you need help understanding Medicare, give us a call at 402-614-3389, or the Medicare coverage helpline is 800-633-4227. Medicare is open 24/7.