By Mary Johnson
Between age 55 and 64, it’s as if our body’s warranty expires and everything just crashes. By the time we turn 65 and eligible for Medicare, chances are we may have a chronic health condition that requires regular check-ups. Often, it’s insidiously hard to tell whether a problem really is serious or whether it’s just a “natural part of growing older,” which in any case feels just as crummy.
With no increase in Social Security benefits over the past two years, seniors participating in TSCL surveys say they are putting off visits to the doctors, and many are not filling prescriptions. But foregoing healthcare can backfire, leaving you with bigger health problems and bills down the road. Here are three things you can start doing right now to lower your Medicare costs and improve your health.
1. Get an annual check up. Case in point: I recently helped a senior who hadn’t seen a doctor in years, despite being a smoker. It took some urging, but she finally got a physical. She was shocked to learn that her blood pressure was high — dangerously so — and wound up driving straight to the pharmacy with a prescription for blood pressure medication. Visits to the doctor are far less expensive when you get there under your own steam rather than via an ambulance gurney. Starting this year, Medicare covers a yearly annual “wellness” exam and you pay nothing, if your doctor “accepts assignment” or the amount Medicare pays for the service. Do this before I have to nag you, too.
2. Get routine physicals and screenings done prior to the start of Medicare’s annual Part D Open Enrollment. Case in point: My client had problems with her new blood pressure medication. It was one of the most common and inexpensive generics but she suffered from extreme fatigue and depression. At my urging, she returned to her doctor and was given a new brand prescription to try and a 7-day free sample. She felt better right away. Routine physicals and screenings are generally scheduled about 12 months apart, but try to get them completed about 30 days BEFORE the annual fall Medicare Part D Open Enrollment period, so you can allow for a trial period with any new meds. When you get your new prescription, ask your doctor or pharmacist for a complete list of side effects or possible drug interactions. Keep a list of symptoms if you don’t start feeling better.
3. Find out the full cost of your new drug and whether your drug plan covers it, every year. Case in point: Using the Medicare Drug Plan finder I learned that my client’s new brand name prescription cost more than $90 a month for a 30-day supply, and her drug plan did not cover it. Because she was lucky enough to be in the middle of the fall Part D Open Enrollment period, however, my client was able to save $1,080 in uncovered out-of-pocket drug costs in 2011 by switching drug plans. She was able to enroll in a plan that provided better coverage and reduced her drug cost to a $16 co-pay. Once you determine that a new prescription is your best option, check your drug plan coverage and what you will pay for it — and do this every year. If the drug is expensive, and if your drug plan doesn’t cover it, or drops coverage, you may want to go back to your doctor to see whether there is a less costly prescription that you can try. You can check the coverage and full cost of the drug using the Medicare drug plan finder at www.medicare.gov.