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That Other Shopping Spree: Medicare Deadline Looms

Updated at 11:40 a.m. on Nov. 23.

Black Friday is nearly upon us, and along with holiday gift shopping, there’s plenty of Medicare shopping to do over Thanksgiving weekend.

Seniors have only two weeks left to choose a new Medicare Advantage or prescription drug plan, if they want to change from their current ones. Medicare’s open enrollment deadline was pushed up this year, from Dec. 31 to Dec. 7, as part of the 2010 federal health law. The earlier deadline is meant to ensure that beneficiaries are properly enrolled and get their new membership cards by the start of the plan year Jan. 1.

Despite earlier concerns, advocates with AARP and the Medicare Rights Center said that awareness of the looming deadline seems to have picked up over the past month because of the many TV ads, mailers and events calling attention to it. Few callers to the groups’ helplines are asking about the deadline; talk is now almost entirely about picking a plan.

Tony Salters, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said enrollment is “on track,” though he was unable to provide specific numbers. Call volume to 1-800-MEDICARE has grown consistently throughout November, Salters added, and reminder mailings were recently sent out to complement the more than 200 events that CMS has hosted.

However, many Medicare beneficiaries might still be unaware, according to a phone survey by GfK Roper for UnitedHealthcare, one of the largest plan providers.  Among 500 seniors surveyed around the midpoint of the Medicare enrollment period in early November, only 32 percent correctly identified the Dec. 7 deadline, while 15 percent thought it was still Dec. 31.

Some Medicare beneficiaries have been known to wait until the last minute. Families are being encouraged to talk about Medicare over the long Thanksgiving weekend, rather than the Christmas holidays as in previous years.

Before you turn on the TV and watch football, sit down and discuss the “four Cs” — cost, coverage, convenience and customer service — said Nicole Duritz, an AARP vice president. People often forget about customer service, in particular. It’s important to evaluate the responsiveness of your Medicare provider, Duritz said, as well as to consider other providers and their ratings.

Medicare’s official website features a plan comparison tool, which includes the star ratings that CMS awards based on quality factors such as rates of hospital readmission. Younger, computer-literate relatives can be especially helpful with the site on Thanksgiving: “It wouldn’t be a bad idea to cluster around a computer for an hour that day,” said MRC President Joe Baker.