How are Seniors Choosing and Changing Health Insurance Plans?

For many seniors, selecting an initial Medicare plan is an unexpectedly daunting task.  The plan environment in Medicare today is quite unlike that of 10 or 20 years ago, when the vast majority of seniors were enrolled in traditional Medicare and may only have had to decide whether or not to purchase a Medigap supplemental policy.  In recent years, the Medicare plan landscape has been transformed, with dozens of private Medicare Advantage and Part D drug plans available to most people on Medicare.  With so many plans and options to review, many beneficiaries find the process of comparing and selecting plans overwhelming and look for ways to simplify the task.  If they choose traditional Medicare, they often need to choose a specific stand-alone Part D prescription drug plan (PDP), and perhaps a supplemental Medigap plan if they are not otherwise receiving supplemental coverage under a retiree health plan or Medicaid.  If instead they choose coverage under Medicare Advantage, they often face a myriad of plan choices, including HMOs and PPOs, with different provider networks, benefits, and premiums.  Each year, plans may change their premiums, benefits, and other features and beneficiaries have the opportunity to assess these changes and, if deemed necessary, switch plans during the annual open enrollment period.  Yet, many studies show that few beneficiaries revisit their coverage decisions each year to determine which option is best for them based on their individual needs and the specific features of the plans available to them.1

This report summarizes first-hand accounts of seniors’ decision making strategies for choosing and changing Medicare private plans, based on 9 focus groups of 6 to 8 seniors in 4 cities.  To explore the diverse methods and thought processes employed by seniors in their plan decision making, focus groups were conducted in cities reflecting variations in Medicare marketplace features:  Baltimore, Maryland; Seattle, Washington; Memphis, Tennessee; and Tampa, Florida.

Key findings:

  • Seniors cited a number of factors that were important in choosing a plan when they first enrolled in Medicare, including: premiums and out-of-pocket costs, access to desired providers, familiarity with the name of the company offering the plan (such as AARP), favorable experience with a plan representative, and adequate coverage for their health care needs.  Some also said they enrolled in a particular Part D or Medicare Advantage plan in order to have the same coverage as their spouse. Star quality ratings of plans did not play a role in seniors’ plan choices.  In the case of seniors choosing among Part D plans, some wanted to be sure the specific drug they were taking was covered by the plan before signing up.
  • Seniors say they found it frustrating and difficult to compare plans due to the volume of information they receive in the mail and through media (television and radio) and their inability to organize the information to determine which plan is best for them.  Most seniors did not use the “Medicare Compare” tool available on the website, and many of those who did said they found it confusing, lacking information, and poorly constructed for comparisons on their desired factors.   For this reason, many rely on insurance agents as trusted advisors or receive suggestions from friends, family, doctors’ offices and/or pharmacists to help them narrow down their options.
  • Many senior Medicare beneficiaries said they did not want to switch plans because the process of their initial plan selection was so frustrating.  They believed they did their homework the first time and most did not want to revisit the decision.  In general, they did not view the annual open enrollment period as a time to review their health plan options and confirm they were still in the plan most likely to meet their needs.  Instead, they feared that a change in plan may disrupt their care or lead to an unforeseen increase in out-of-pocket costs, and require them to learn a daunting new set of rules and requirements.  To many senior beneficiaries, the grass was not necessarily greener in other plans, and other plans could be worse.  They were skeptical that any other plan would be much better, even if they were less than satisfied with their coverage or costs.  Most viewed premium increases as inevitable, and were reluctant to switch plans unless premiums rose considerably.  For these reasons, many will go to considerable lengths to make their existing plan work.
  • Among the relatively small number of seniors in the focus groups who said they did switch plans, some cited a desire to stay with a particular health care provider.  Seniors would consider switching plans in response to a significant change in their personal health care needs, a major modification to their coverage or provider network, or, in the case of Part D plans, a big increase in the cost of a particular drug that they take, or a change in their plan’s formulary or utilization management requirements.

Seniors in our focus groups said they appreciated being able to choose among many plans, and did not want their number of choices to be limited; however, they also felt unqualified to choose among plans and would like the process to be easier. Beneficiaries wanted to make well-informed and financially sound decisions but did not feel confident in their ability to do so under the current system.  While they tried to compare costs, coverage, and provider networks, beneficiaries found the process frustrating and confusing.  Many said they wanted advice from experts, so they relied on input from an insurance agent or a plan representative, or suggestions from family, friends, and medical professionals.  Our focus groups identified a high demand for clear, concise, and easily comparable information presented in a digestible format focusing on the factors most important to consumers, namely cost, provider networks, and coverage.  Few described the materials they have received as easy to use, and even fewer said they would turn to Medicare Compare during the next open enrollment period.   Making it easier for beneficiaries to compare and switch plans, when it is in their interest to do so, would help achieve the goal of having consumers choose a plan that best meets their individual needs and preferences. In addition, if more beneficiaries switch to lower-cost plans, the result could be lower costs for themselves and for the Medicare program.


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