Weiss: Report Finds Major Flaws, Calls for Improvements in Medicare Plan Finder Tool

Monday, July 23, 2018
Herb Weiss, GoLocalWorcester Guest MINDSETTERâ„¢

When shopping around for the best Medicare coverage options in fee-to-service and Medicare Parts C and D, beneficiaries are often told they can rely on the Medicare Plan Finder (MPF) to provide the needed information to compare and choose the plan that best meets their needs.  But, a recently released report, co-authored by the Clear Choices Campaign, a health care cost transparency initiative of the Council for Affordable Health Coverage, and the nonprofit National Council on Aging (NCOA), charges that the federal government’s online tool may not be delivering on that promise.  “MPF is in the need for significant reform,” advises the report.

MPF Tool Needs a Complete Overhaul

While the 46-page report acknowledges MPF's "wealth of unbiased information," it warns that "the status quo is not acceptable, and that a re-tooling of MPF’s plan comparison features and enrollment functions is essential."  “The site is overwhelming, information is poorly presented, and the user design is potentially misleading—all of which confuses beneficiaries and can contribute to many making poor plan selections. Two of the biggest shortcomings are out-of-pocket cost information is difficult to understand and provider directories are difficult to navigate,” concludes the report.     

The report’s scorecard gives the MPF “A” grades only for its anonymous browsing capabilities and non-English translation services., but MPF earned "D" or "F" grades in seven other criteria (specifically, Customized Plan Information, Highlights Supplemental Benefits, Integrated Provider Directory, Layout, Access to Human support).

“Modernizing Medicare Plan Finder: Evaluating and Improving Medicare's Online Comparison Shopping Experience,” released on April 25, 2018, is the result of the first-ever independent stakeholder assessment of MPF.  Along with the scorecard rating 12 criteria, the report highlights the evaluation findings and provides specific recommendations to improve MPF.

For its analysis, Clear Choices and NCOA staff undertook a detailed review of all online MPF functions, conducted 25 interviews with Medicare beneficiaries, and surveyed Medicare State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) directors, who routinely use the tool in assisting millions of Medicare beneficiaries. The findings highlight a number of MPF challenges for beneficiaries, ranging from the unavailability of human support, to language that is unfamiliar to the typical consumer, to confusing out-of-pocket cost estimates.

"In order for competition to work in the increasingly complex Medicare program, beneficiaries must be well-informed and have consumer-friendly tools available to make wise plan choices,” said Howard Bedlin, NCOA’s Vice President of Policy and Advocacy.  “I sat with seniors and talked with them while they struggled to use the Plan Finder and I can assure you, this is clearly not the case today. This report includes 11 key and 25 detailed recommendations for making this goal a reality, and ensuring that every beneficiary has access to the information they need to make the best Medicare decision for their situation. NCOA, and the diverse groups and thought leaders who contributed to this report stand ready to help make it happen.”

Joel White, Clear Choice’s president, says “our members know that transparency is key to unlocking greater competition and to ultimately drive down healthcare costs.”  Markets respond when consumers are empowered to make informed decisions by using tools to compare their options, he says.

“Sadly, in this case, a tool designed to help beneficiaries better understand their choices is failing in its mission and adding to the confusion and opaqueness that typifies too many Americans' healthcare experience. We must fundamentally reimagine how MPF delivers information to consumers and, ultimately, have an honest conversation about whether beneficiaries would not be better served by the private sector,” adds White.

“Medicare beneficiaries need to be able to understand and compare their Medicare options so they can choose the plan that is best for them. We hope that CMS will implement the recommendations in the report in order to improve MPF’s consumer-facing features,” says Karin Bolte, Senior Director of Health Policy, National Consumers League, 

Creating a Better Online Consumer Tool

The report includes 11 key and 25 detailed recommendations that NCOA and Clear Choices believe will improve the Medicare Plan Finder and ensure that every beneficiary has access to the information they need to make the best Medicare decision for their situation. These include:

  • Displaying costs with decision and prominence
  • Basing estimated out-of-pocket costs on more detailed information 
  • Integrating a provider directory
  • Utilizing saved information about consumers' drugs
  • Allowing consumers to compare Medicare Advantage plans with an equivalent combination of fee-for-service, Medigap, and standalone drug plans
  • Redesigning the layout and display to enhance usability and promote intuitive navigation
  • Replacing insurance jargon with graphics, charts, and plain language
  • Integrating a web chat feature
  • Enabling the website to suggest plan options
  • Contracting to ensure more stringent oversight of MPF’s accuracy
  • Testing the site with consumers on a regular basis

 

With 10,000 Baby Boomers enrolling in Medicare every day, its crucial for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to closely review the "Modernizing Medicare Plan Finder" report’s recommendations and make appropriate changes for this online tool to remain relevant.  To access the report, go here.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a writer covering aging, healthcare, and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

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