In September, the federal government will mail a handbook on Medicare enrollment to 43 million households. “Medicare & You” is an important, authoritative source on a wide array of plan options for the annual enrollment period that runs from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7, and it has been mailed out to beneficiaries each year since 1999. But this year, advocate groups for seniors are crying foul over language contained in a draft of the 2019 handbook edition sent to them for review by the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The Medicare Rights Center and two other groups (Justice in Aging and the Center for Medicare Advocacy) argue that the draft contains inaccurate, ideologically tinted descriptions of the tradeoffs between original fee-for-service insurance and a privatized managed-care alternative. That is no small criticism – and it comes from authoritative organizations with deep expertise on Medicare policy, coverage and the laws governing the program. The choice between fee-for-service coverage and Medicare Advantage is the first that seniors make about their coverage – and one of the most important.
Moreover, the handbook problems fit a pattern in the Trump administration, which has taken a number of steps to impede the flow of unbiased health insurance assistance. The administration has twice proposed to eliminate federal funding for State Health Insurance Assistance Programs, which provide critical assistance to 3 million seniors annually with their plan selections and it has slashed funding for consumer outreach and enrollment assistance for Affordable Care Act coverage. Now, aging advocates charge that the 2019 Medicare handbook draft contains “serious inaccuracies” aimed at steering enrollees to choose private Medicare Advantage managed-care plans over traditional fee-for-service coverage. The criticisms are leveled in a letter sent last week to Seema Verma, administrator of CMS.