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,
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.