Medicare Part B Explained

Problems with Medicare Plan Finder to spur CMS revamp next month

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Dive Brief:

  • A difficult-to-use interface and incomplete information in the CMS-run Medicare Plan Finder makes it harder for beneficiaries to compare coverage options online, according to a new Government Accountability Office report to the House Ways and Means Committee made public Tuesday.
  • GAO found 73% of State Health Insurance Assistance Program directors report beneficiaries experience difficulty finding information while using the tool, and 18% had SHIP counselors that experience difficulty. For example, the Medicare Plan Finder lacks clear, prominent instructions on how to use the site, contains complex healthcare terminology the average layperson is unlikely to understand, and makes consumers navigate through multiple pages before accessing plan details.
  • CMS is aware of the site's shortcomings and plans to launch a re-designed plan finder in early August, GAO said.

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Dive Insight:

Improving customer experience is increasingly important as consumerism continues to affect healthcare, and not just for millennials. According to CMS, roughly two-thirds of the more 60 million Medicare beneficiaries access the internet daily or almost daily, and has about 15 million annual page views.

The Medicare Plan Finder (MPF), meant to assist beneficiaries while choosing insurance, has been bumping into issues since its 1998 launch. Previous research from the National Council on Aging and the Clear Choices Campaign found MPF to be "overwhelming" for users, with a clunky design and poorly presented information that could prevent consumers from finding the Medicare coverage best for them.

The GAO agrees, finding in its new report that stakeholders had difficulty navigating multiple complex pages to find and compare coverage options. For example, site users are unable to jump directly to specific pages or sections that meet their needs, such as finding the availability of preferred pharmacies.

In addition to poor user experience, GAO found beneficiaries have a hard time understanding the information in MPF once they've accessed it, due to complicated terminology and too many confusing options. MPF doesn't provide a holistic picture of a consumer's Medicare choices, either.

MPF provides "incomplete" cost estimates for fee-for-service Medicare because it doesn't include Medigap plan information in its results, making it difficult to compare the fee-for-service plans with privately run Medicare Advantage alternatives, GAO reported.

As the population skews ever older and an increasing number of Americans age into the federal health program, improving navigational and informational tools for seniors has become more of a focus for CMS.

The NCA recommended CMS display plan costs more prominently, base estimated out-of-pocket costs on more detailed information, integrate a provider directory and allow for direct comparison of MA plans with a combination of fee-for-service, Medigap and standalone drug plans, among other suggestions.

In response to website criticism, CMS revamped late last year, launching an online Medicare open enrollment initiative called eMedicare. The multi-year push includes a revamped design allowing users to directly compare the cost of different plans and an out-of-pocket cost calculator for overall and prescription drug costs, along with tools to make user navigation more intuitive, like a simplified login for MPF and a customer service webchat.

As part of the eMedicare initiative, CMS launched an app earlier this year giving Medicare beneficiaries mobile access to the information on, including the details of their plan coverage and up-to-date information on doctors and hospitals.

It will take a few years to determine whether the facelift will help the portal serve beneficiaries better, and there are some initial concerns the streamlined online experience could cause confusion by potentially presenting cost and plan estimates as fact.

CMS plans to launch a redesigned website next month, but it will likely be an ongoing process as CMS wants it to go through multiple rounds of changes and user testing, the agency said.

CMS will also work on providing more complete coverage information in MPF and is working with payers to integrate provider directories into future versions of the tool.

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