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There’s one moment in Fred Horn’s rather brief career as a volunteer insurance counselor that he’ll remember for quite a while. It happened last fall at the Local Office on Aging, where he met with an elderly couple to review their prescription medicine coverage under Medicare Part D.

The man was 90, Horn said, and the woman was a few years younger. Horn entered into a software program lists of medicines both the husband and wife take. A computer analyzed those lists against a panoply of Medicare Part D insurance plans offered to residents of the Roanoke Valley.

“Combined, their annual savings was going to be a little over $2,000” if they changed their Medicare Part D insurance providers, Horn told me. “They were floored. They had tears in their eyes.”

We’re approaching the annual fall open enrollment period during which seniors renew their Medicare Part D coverage. Others will be signing up for the first time. Open enrollment runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 6.

Eight volunteers, including Horn, and three employees perform the analyses at the Local Office on Aging, said Ron Boyd, the agency’s president and CEO. The work is part of the Virginia Insurance Counseling and Assistance Program.

The office also helps seniors navigate the landscape for Medicare Part A (hospitalization), Part B (doctor’s visits), Medicare Advantage and long-term care plans. Its trained personnel can help analyze medical bills “to see if seniors are overpaying,” Boyd told me.

Counseling saved seniors in the region $127,000 this year on their prescription drug costs, Boyd said. It’s evident from other numbers he furnished the program is barely scratching the surface in total savings potential.

In fall 2018, 2,295 seniors sought counseling under the program. That’s barely 3% of the 72,571 Medicare beneficiaries in the Fifth Planning District, Boyd said. The district covers the Roanoke Valley and Craig, Botetourt, Franklin and Alleghany counties.

The 27 different Part D plans offered in this region vary greatly in monthly premiums, drugs that are covered, limits to coverage and annual deductibles. Eight of the current year’s plans have a zero deductible — but premiums vary from $14.50 monthly to slightly more than $90, Boyd said.

Another complicating factor: Most Part D plans change each year in the medicines they cover and the coverage levels. For example, given the medicines a senior takes, Plan X might be the most cost-effective this year, while Plan Y proves more cost effective next year because of changes to each plan in the interim.

For that reason, each senior enrolled in Medicare Part D should have an analysis every year, Horn said.

“I’ve been on [Part D] for three years, and each year I’ve had to change plans because the insurance companies change the classifications of the drugs,” Horn said. To explain the annual changes, “they send you this great big, thick, almost phone book-sized booklet that nobody’s going to read.”

Horn said he performed an analysis for his ex-wife, and she switched and saved $3,000 in one year.

The Medicare Part D counseling sessions take about an hour. They begin Oct. 15, Boyd said, because that’s when the insurance companies release details of their plans for the coming year. Volunteers are now undergoing training about next year’s plans so they can effectively counsel seniors on them.

The counseling sessions cost nothing and happen by appointment. The Local Office on Aging will begin taking appointments Oct. 1, 23 days from now.

I’d mark that date along with the agency’s phone number — 540-345-0451 — and call as soon as possible. If you’re younger than Medicare age, persuade your older family members to do it. That’ll help ensure they get an appointment during the 10 weeks of open enrollment.

Boyd said the agency always can use more volunteers to help clients navigate our complicated senior health insurance landscape. You can call the same number if you wish to volunteer. But do that as soon as possible. Advance training is required.

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Dan Casey knows a little bit about a lot of things but not a heck of a lot about most things. That doesn't keep him from writing about them, however. So keep him honest!

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