THURSDAY, Sept. 15 (HealthDay News) -- The open enrollment period for Medicare will begin earlier this year, so seniors need to start looking at their current plans to decide what coverage they want in 2012, U.S. health officials said Thursday.
The good news is that while benefits will remain essentially the same for the 99.7 percent of Medicare recipients who have access to Medicare Advantage, premiums for that program will fall 4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees the program.
Meanwhile, overall enrollment is expected to increase 10 percent, health officials said. Although the enrollment period will last longer this year it will end earlier, on Dec. 7 instead of Dec. 31, they added.
"As we continue to implement the Affordable Care Act, we are taking the right approach to Medicare," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said during a Thursday morning news conference. "An approach that begins by improving benefits instead of cutting them, and continues to slow the growth in costs."
All beneficiaries will have access to Medicare-covered preventive services without a co-pay or deductible, including Annual Wellness Visits, in 2012, Sebelius added. Also, people who reach the donut hole in their drug coverage will get discounts on brand name drugs and expanded coverage for generic drugs as part of the Affordable Care Act, she noted.
Premiums for the Medicare Part D, the prescription drug plan, will remain the same, Sebelius said.
"The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services [CMS] is encouraging beneficiaries enrolled in Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug plans to review their current health and drug plan coverage for any changes their plans may be making for 2012 before the annual open enrollment period begins on Oct. 15," the agency said.
Speaking at the news conference, Jonathan Blum, deputy administrator and director of CMS, said that in 2012 Medicare Advantage patients will have "better benefits, consistent number of choices and lower average premiums."
For the first time, CMS will reward Medicare Advantage plans with high quality scores through its so called "Five-Star" rating system. Plans that earn these financial rewards will also be allowed to market to and enroll new patients all year long, Blum said.
Those currently enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan will be automatically switched to original Medicare if they do not choose a plan. But to keep prescription drug coverage, everyone will need to enroll in a Part D plan, the agency stressed.
For more on Medicare, visit the Medicare.gov.
SOURCES: Sept. 15, 2011, teleconference with: Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Jonathan Blum, Deputy Administrator and Director, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
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