For the first time in the last decade, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) updated the popular health plan shopping tool Medicare Plan Finder, but the recent redesign initiative has raised concerns for consumer advocacy groups that say the tool offers inaccurate information.
The federal government spent $11 million on the development of the redesign tool, according to a CMS statement, which users claim are giving inaccurate cost estimates and erroneous plan data.
The Medicare Plan Finder, according to the agency, is the most used tool on Medicare.gov, allowing consumers to compare and shop for Medicare Advantage and Part D plans. The update was announced in an Aug. 27 news release, which was met with timing concerns considering the ability of third-party assisters to learn how the new tool functioned before open enrollment on Oct. 15.
The Center for Medicare Advocacy, Justice in Aging, the Medicare Rights Center, and the National Council on Aging sent a joint letter to CMS on Aug. 27 mentioning time concerns as well as the tool’s ability to adequately and effectively help beneficiaries choose the right Medicare Advantage plan given insurers’ flexibility to offer new supplemental benefits in 2020.
The letter read, in part:
As outlined herein, however, we are concerned that recent revisions may instead complicate these efforts, to the detriment of people with Medicare.
Earlier this month, a blog written by Brian McGarry, assistant professor at the University of Rochester’s Division of Geriatrics and aging, and colleagues in the Health Affairs blog assessed the tools effectiveness. McGarry emphasized the tool places premium prices front and center instead of total costs. Health plans are automatically sorted by premiums, which can mislead users who think they are getting the best deal with the lowest premiums. The blog argues plans with the lowest premiums does not necessarily have the lowest overall cost.
McGarry and colleagues wrote:
CMS should revert to the prior default sorting rule—placing the plans with the lowest total cost at the top of the plan menu. The most valuable output of the Plan Finder tool is this total cost estimate, which produces a single number that accounts for each plan’s premium, formulary, deductible, and cost-sharing design, as well as the interaction of these plan attributes with a user’s current drug list.
Advocates are calling for an open enrollment extension to remedy the technology glitches and inaccuracies users are reporting.
ProPublica reported Diane Omdahl, a Medicare consultant in Wisconsin, said when she used the tool’s comparison page to research three prescription drug plans for a client, it claimed all but one of her client’s medications would be covered. But when she clicked on the plan details to see which one was left out, the finder said they were all covered.
To get to the bottom of the contrasting answers, she checked the plans’ websites and found that two versions of the same high blood pressure medication exists. The difference is one of them is covered and the other costs $2,700 a month.
CMS has acknowledged user reported difficulties with the updated Medicare Plan Finder, but said the agency conducted “extensive consumer testing … to ensure that the information that is displayed is complete, streamlined, understandable, and is in plain language.”
More than 60 million Americans have Medicare coverage and millions of beneficiaries use the plan finder tool to reevaluate their insurance picks during open enrollment season.
David Lipschutz, associate director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, told ProPublica, “It’s not like there’s one consistent problem that you can fix and then be addressed.”
“It’s really like a game of whack-a-mole,” he added.
For the news release announcing the update, visit CMS’ site.
Also check out the Health Affairs blog post.