With fall fast approaching, it’s time for Medicare-enrolled folks to start thinking not just about which pumpkin spice products to try but also whether they should make a change to their Medicare coverage for next year.

The time to make those changes — known as Medicare open enrollment — starts Oct. 15 and runs through Dec. 7. But people can start viewing plan options on medicare.gov starting Oct. 1.

A heads-up: Medicare has launched an upgrade of its plan finder, the online tool that allows enrollees to shop for and pick drug coverage. Some familiar features may have changed.

Those who are enrolled in Medicare and have a prescription drug plan — known as Part D — that they’re happy with usually aren’t required to do anything.

But Sue Fredricks, executive director of Volunteers Assisting Seniors in Omaha, advises people to review their plans each year. They should make sure the medications they’re currently taking will continue to be covered and that their plan is going to give them the best overall value.

Plans can raise or lower premiums, drop medications from their lists of preferred prescription drugs or switch pharmacies for which they provide preferred pricing. Medicare participants don’t want to get a costly surprise when they go to the pharmacy in January and learn they’re stuck paying a lot more for a medication, said Fredricks, whose organization provides free help to people navigating open enrollment.

“It’s always a good practice to do that review every year,” she said, “whether you decide to change or not.”

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People also should review their Medicare Advantage plans, an alternative to original Medicare, during open enrollment to check drug coverage and health benefits. That includes making sure their doctors will still be in their plan network.

Fredricks said it’s too early to tell what options will be available for next year. The official list of available plans usually is released around Oct. 1. This year, Medicare participants had 28 different drug plan options.

Medica already has announced that it will expand its Medicare offerings in Nebraska for next year. It currently offers plans to Medicare-eligible people in 12 counties in northern and northeast Nebraska. With the expansion, the list for 2020 will grow to 59 counties in Nebraska, including Douglas and Sarpy, plus three in Iowa: Pottawattamie, Mills and Harrison.

The Minnesota-based group also offers plans to individuals who purchase coverage on the federal health care exchange under the Affordable Care Act in all 93 counties.

Next year, the company plans to begin offering group health coverage in Nebraska, alongside long-standing companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska and UnitedHealthcare.

Medica officials said the company’s experience in the state has been good. In addition, market demand for more competition has been growing in the Midwest.

For now, Fredricks said, Medicare enrollees should watch for — and hang onto — their Annual Notice of Change, which is mailed in September and includes any changes in coverage, costs or service area that will be effective in January.

Patrick Bourne, market leader for Medica in Omaha, advised people to begin studying medicare.gov and insurance carrier websites, and to pay attention to how the companies are rated by outside firms for financial stability.

More information about Medica’s plans will be available on the company’s website — medica.com — beginning Oct. 1. The company and the brokers it works with also plan to host a number of Medicare workshops throughout the state.

Bourne also recommended that Medicare shoppers visit a trusted local insurance agent. They can find one by asking friends who use Medicare for recommendations and interviewing agents as they would when seeking a financial planner.

Fredricks stressed that open enrollment is for people who already have Medicare, not those who are getting close to enrolling.

However, Medicare recommends that people consider enrolling in a Medicare drug plan when they’re eligible at age 65, even if they don’t take prescription medications. If they don’t, they’ll face a penalty later if they do need medications but no longer have comparable coverage, such as through an employer or the military.

People who don’t take medications often enroll in the plan with the lowest monthly premium when they become eligible. It’s still a good idea for such enrollees to check each year to make sure there’s not a lower-cost plan available.

Fredricks said her organization will begin offering appointments at its office beginning Oct. 15. Volunteers Assisting Seniors is the Omaha-area office of the federally funded Nebraska Senior Health Insurance Information Program. It will also offer a number of enrollment events. Appointments are necessary for both. Make one by calling 402-444-6617. To contact other SHIIP groups around the state, call 1-800-234-7719.

Some upcoming Omaha-area enrollment events:

  • Oct. 16, VAS, 1941 S. 42nd St, 312, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Oct. 17, Baright Public Library, 5555 S. 77th St., Ralston, 9 a.m.- 2 p.m.
  • Oct. 21, VAS, 1941 S. 42nd St, 312, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Oct. 22, Doane University, Omaha campus, 4020 S. 147th St., Suite 100, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Oct. 23, VAS, 1941 S. 42nd St, 312, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Oct. 25, Southeast Community College, 537 Main St., Plattsmouth, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
  • Oct. 25, Fremont Friendship Center, 1730 W. 16th St., Fremont, 9 a.m.-noon
  • Oct. 28, VAS, 1941 S. 42nd St, 312, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Oct. 30, Sump Library, 222 N. Jefferson St., Papillion, 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
  • Oct. 31, Doane University, Omaha campus, 4020 S. 147th St., Suite 100, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Nov. 1, Fremont Friendship Center, 1730 W. 16th St., Fremont, 9 a.m.-noon
  • Nov. 4, Immanuel Agewell, 6801 N. 67th Plaza, Omaha, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Nov. 5, Doane University, Omaha campus, 4020 S. 147th St., Suite 100, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Nov. 6, VAS, 1941 S. 42nd St, 312, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Nov. 8, VAS, 1941 S. 42nd St, 312, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Nov. 8, Fremont Friendship Center, 1730 W. 16th St., Fremont, 9 a.m.-noon
  • Nov. 13, VAS, 1941 S. 42nd St, 312, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Nov. 14, Doane University, Omaha campus, 4020 S. 147th St., Suite 100, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Nov. 15, Fremont Friendship Center, 1730 W. 16th St., Fremont, 9 a.m.-noon
  • Nov. 16, VAS, 1941 S. 42nd St, 312, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Nov. 18, VAS, 1941 S. 42nd St, 312, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Nov. 19, Doane University, Omaha campus, 4020 S. 147th St., Suite 100, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Nov. 20, VAS, 1941 S. 42nd St, 312, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Nov. 21, Baright Public Library, 5555 S. 77th St., Ralston, 9 a.m.- 2 p.m.
  • Nov. 22, Fremont Friendship Center, 1730 W. 16th St., Fremont, 9 a.m.-noon
  • Nov. 25, VAS, 1941 S. 42nd St, 312, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Nov. 26, Doane University, Omaha campus, 4020 S. 147th St., Suite 100, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Dec. 2, Doane University, Omaha campus, 4020 S. 147th St., Suite 100, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Dec. 4, VAS, 1941 S. 42nd St, 312, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Dec. 6, VAS, 1941 S. 42nd St, 312, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.

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Julie Anderson is a medical reporter for The World-Herald. She covers health care and health care trends and developments, including hospitals, research and treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieAnderson41. Phone: 402-444-1066.

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