Medicare Advantage are plans offered by private insurers. You can choose a Medicare Advantage plan during the annual open enrollment period or when you're first offered Medicare when you turn 65. 

If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, you'll receive your annual notice of change (ANOC) from your plan before open enrollment. Medicare Advantage plans are required to tell you of any changes for the upcoming year before the Medicare open enrollment period.

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Don't ignore open enrollment, advises Pamala McIntire, a benefits consultant for Reames Employee Benefits Solutions in Daytona Beach, FL. The notice will tell you of any changes in the plan's costs, benefits, coverages or service areas and rules for the upcoming year.

Here's what you can do during open enrollment that runs between Oct. 15 and Dec. 7:

  • Switch from Original Medicare (also called Parts A and B) to Medicare Advantage (Part C)

  • Change from Medicare Advantage to Original Medicare

  • Swap Medicare Advantage plans

  • Get a Medicare prescription drug plan (called Part D) if you have Original Medicare

  • Change or cancel Part D plans

Changes made during open enrollment kick in on Jan. 1. 

There's also a limited open enrollment period from Jan. 1 to March 31. During that open enrollment, you can only:

  • Switch Medicare Advantage plans
  • Move from Medicare Advantage to Original Medicare

If you don't make changes during these times, you won't be able to switch until the next open enrollment period unless you face a qualifying life event. A qualifying life event includes a spouse's death, retirement or change of job. 

Medicare Advantage 2015If you're satisfied with your plan, you don't have to do anything during open enrollment. But if you're dissatisfied or want to change to a different Medicare Advantage plan, open enrollment is the time.

Medicare plans vary on who handles your claims. With Original Medicare, the government pays your healthcare providers for your Part A and/or Part B benefits.

Medicare Advantage plans are a type of Medicare offered by private companies. The companies contract with Medicare to provide you insurance. Most Medicare Advantage plans are health maintenance organizations or preferred provider organizations.

However, some Medicare Advantage plans are private fee-for-service plans.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimated that Americans will have an average of 57 Medicare Advantage choices in 2021. That's an increase from 39 alternatives on average in 2020. 

Overall, CMS said there will be more than 4,800 Medicare Advantage plans in 2021.

Medicare Advantage plans have lower premiums

Medicare Advantage premiums are much cheaper than Original Medicare. For 2021, Original Medicare's premium is estimated at $153.30. That's compared to an average monthly premium of $21 for Medicare Advantage. 

However, Medicare Advantage has higher deductibles. Original Medicare's deductible is about $200. Private insurers can offer plans with higher deductibles. In fact, private plans can provide high-deductible health plans, which may deductibles over $1,000. 

Make sure to look at deductibles and out-of-pocket costs when you're comparing plans. The cost of the plans can vary depending on where you live. 

Costs for 2021 Medicare Advantage plans

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) forecasts that average premiums for 2021 Medicare Advantage plans will decrease by 6% compared to 2020. 

The trade-off to a low premium is that you might have higher deductibles and co-insurance when you need healthcare. Also, you will pay more or may not have any coverage if you use doctors and hospitals that aren't part of your Advantage plan's network.

Medicare Advantage plans give more supplemental benefits than Original Medicare. These supplemental benefits include dental, vision, prescription drugs, telehealth, expanded palliative care, adult day car services, food delivery and transportation to appointments. 

There are also Medicare Advantage plans that focus on particular health issues like diabetes and congestive heart failure.

Not all Medicare Advantage plans will have these supplemental benefits, so check to make sure to ask the plan about supplemental benefits before enrolling. In the coming years, more Medicare Advantage plans will have these kinds of add-ons. 

Find out more about Medicare costs.

Drug coverage likely included in a Medicare Advantage plan

Most, but not all, Medicare Advantage plans provide prescription drug coverage. You may pay more for a Medicare Advantage plan with prescription drug coverage.

If you have Original Medicare, you can buy a Part D drug coverage plan separately. However, you can't buy a Part D plan if you have a Medicare Advantage plan. Instead, look for a Medicare Advantage plan with drug coverage. 

Separate Part D plans average $30.50 a month in 2021.  

What to look for when choosing a Medicare Advantage plan

Here's what to do when choosing a Medicare Advantage plan:

Look at what doctors and hospitals are in the plan's network. Provider networks can change each year and even mid-year. If you visit particular doctors or hospitals, make sure they're part of the plan you choose.

Not all providers accept Medicare Advantage. Your long-time doctor may accept Original Medicare, but that doesn't mean the physician accepts a specific Medicare Advantage plan. It's best to check with your physician's office before signing up with a plan just to make sure. 

Look at drugs and your usage when selecting plan. If you're taking prescription drugs, examine the plan's list of covered medications carefully.

It may be worth your time to set up a spreadsheet with your medications and the costs under your different Medicare Advantage and Original Medicare options.

Consider the plan's maximum out-of-pocket costs. You may want a plan that has a low out-of-pocket maximum. If you're healthy and don't plan to use much health care, you might want to risk a higher out-of-pocket maximum.

Compare plans. A good resource for choosing the best Medicare Advantage Plan is the Medicare Plan Finder.

After you determine the Medicare Advantage plans in your area, go to the plan's website to double check what suits your needs.

You also can call the plan and talk to a plan representative. If you speak with a representative to confirm that the plan you want covers all your drugs and that the doctors, hospitals and pharmacies you want to use are in its network, take notes. Keep a record of whom you spoke with and what was said.

Visit the plan's website to see if you can sign up online.

You can also call Medicare directly: 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227).

You can't buy Original Medicare or Medicare Advantage plans on state health insurance exchanges. The exchanges sell only individual and family health insurance.

Additional reporting by Beth Orenstein