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This Medicare open enrollment season is predicted to see extra seniors search assist on-line. Insurers say they’re prepared

A senior signing up for Medicare.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

The open enrollment season for Medicare participants can sometimes be overwhelming due to the wide variety of options.

The average senior will have 47 different health plans to choose from in 2021, according to the Trump administration, a 20% increase from last year.

For most years, most seniors turn to independent brokers and insurance agents to find out which plan is best for them.

"In our focus groups, people said it was nice to have an agent to walk you through the options and guide you to a specific plan," said Tricia Neuman, executive director of the Kaiser Family Foundation's Medicare Policy Program. But she adds, "It's a lot more difficult this year just because people are mostly at home."

With Covid-19 cases rising across the country, seniors are reluctant to seek personal help this year. According to a consumer survey by health insurance consultancy Deft Research, only 9% of Medicare beneficiaries said they would meet in person with a broker this year. Two thirds plan to get advice on the phone, it said.

Medicare insurer Humana said it would offer socially distant, face-to-face appointments with agents "based on instructions from local health officials," according to a company press release. The Rival UnitedHealth Group is shifting its registration efforts online.

"We are holding many community meetings across the country during open registration … (but) we expect many more to be held in a virtual environment," said Tim Noel, CEO of UnitedHealthcare Medicare and Retirement Plans. He said Zoom-style meetings have been popular with realtors and seniors. "It's similar to telemedicine."

Online health insurance brokers expect a surge in demand for phone consultations when Medicare open registration begins later this month. They expanded their staff over the summer, moved their agents from call centers to home systems, and upgraded their websites.

"We're going to try to use the technology as much as possible for the process to make things more efficient. This includes voice signatures for people who fill out and advertise the program, and DocuSign features in multiple languages ‚Äč‚Äčthat our brokers use to sell can complete without having to interact in a personal environment, "said Clint Jones, GoHealth Co-Founder and CEO.

To streamline phone discussions with its brokers, eHealth is launching a new customer center where Medicare attendees can create a secure permanent profile with information about their current health plan, doctors, and medication to make it easier to compare new plan options.

"We obviously didn't know when we were going to build this, that we would be launching it at exactly a time when seniors are starting to shop more conveniently online and are less comfortable with physical meetings," said Scott Flanders, CEO of eHealth.

Seniors cannot sign up for new plans until October 15. You can now browse the plan options. Like the online brokers, the Trump administration has expanded the plan finder and comparison tools on Medicare.gov to help seniors find coverage options.

Typically, however, very few seniors change their plans in any given year. An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 10% of Medicare Part D and 8% of Medicare Advantage subscribers voluntarily switched coverage during open enrollment in 2016. They will automatically be put back into their current plan if they don't make a choice.

"I think this could be a year where people are more likely to stick with what they have than make a switch," said Neuman. "There are so many worries and fears in general at the moment that I think this is too big of a job for many people."

Medicare open registration runs through December 7th.

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