Medicare Advantage Plans: Read the Fine Print!

Medicare open enrollment for 2022 ends on December 7th. No doubt, like me, you have seen the countless commercials and even 30-minute-long infomercials from various Medicare Advantage plans touting the great benefits of these plans—like dental and vision coverage, gym memberships, meals, transportation to medical appointments—and many others.

For some, Medicare Advantage plans are good enough. But, if you have cancer or any other complex illness that necessitates frequent usage of healthcare services, these plans (honestly like all insurance plans) have disadvantages. You are not going to hear about these disadvantages in those infomercials. 

What is a Medicare Advantage Plan?

  • Medicare Advantage plans are also referred to as Medicare Part C. 
  • If you are eligible for and have Medicare A and B coverage, you can enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan. 
  • These plans are offered and managed by third party insurance companies that have been approved by the Center for Medicare Services (CMS) to offer Medicare Advantage plans.
  • When you enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan you are essentially selling your traditional Medicare coverage to a private insurance company.
  • During open enrollment, you cannot switch back from Medicare Advantage to “regular” Medicare. You can only do this during the annual Medicare Advantage Disenrollment Period Jan 1st-March 31st.
  • During open enrollment you can switch from one Medicare Advantage plan to another. It is important to compare plans EVERY year during open enrollment.

What about this “extra money in my social security check” benefit I’m hearing about?

This is called a Medicare Part B premium give back. This is a feature of SOME Medicare Advantage plans where the Medicare Advantage plan pays for all or part of your Part B premium. If you are eligible and how much you could potentially get back depends on where you live and the Medicare Part B premium you are currently paying. Once you enroll in this type of plan, it typically takes 1-3 months for the change to show up in your monthly social security payments. However, not everyone is eligible. If you have Medicaid (dual-enrolled) in addition to your Medicare and get assistance for your Part B premiums already, you are not eligible. If you receive premium assistance through qualified Medicare beneficiary programs (QMB), you are not eligible for this program.

Remember that while you might see more money monthly in your social security check, you should be looking carefully at the Maximum Out of Pocket (MOOP) for your plan. This could be up to $7500 annually for an in-network provider. So while you may see more money on the front end, on the back end, when you need your health insurance benefits, you could be spending a lot more.

What are the Key Differences Between Traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage Plans?

Traditional MedicareMedicare Advantage
Medicare is a traditional fee-for-service insurance plan. Your provider bills Medicare for services.Medicare Advantage plans are typically HMOs or PPOs. Your provider bills Medicare for services.
You do not need a primary care physician/provider. You may need to have a primary care physician/provider who is the gatekeeper for all of your healthcare needs.  Some plans do not require a PCP. 
There is no office visit copay due the day you see a provider. You will be billed for your co-insurance (20%).There are office visit copays due the day you see your provider. These copays are typically higher for specialists and must be paid at every visit.
You do not need to get referrals to see specialists.You will need referrals/prior authorization for specialty care and some services-this includes oncologists, radiation oncologists, labs, and radiology tests.
You can go to any healthcare provider that accepts Medicare.There is a preferred network of providers/facilities contracted with the plan. Going to an out-of-network provider could cost you a lot more. Your network providers may be more concentrated in the geographic area where you live. Keep this in mind if you are traveling–for vacation or maybe to an out-of-area specialist.
Your co-insurance for Part B (outpatient care) covered services is 20%. This means you are responsible for 20% of the costs of your care. This is a GAP in coverage.Your co-insurance for Part B (outpatient care) covered services is 20%. This means you are responsible for 20% of the costs of your care. This is a GAP in coverage.
There is no annual maximum out of pocket.There is an annual out-of-pocket maximum; it cannot be more than $7500 in-network and a combined $10,000 in and out of network. This resets annually-every January.
You can purchase a Medigap plan (also called supplemental) to cover your out-of-pocket costs.You CANNOT purchase a Medigap plan (also called supplemental) to cover your out-of-pocket costs.
Does not cover dental, vision, non-ambulance medical transportation, gym memberships, or other special benefits.May offer dental, vision, non-ambulance medical transportation, gym memberships, or other special benefits. This varies for each plan.
You must purchase a separate plan for Medicare Part D (prescription drug) coverage.Some plans include Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage. You may still need to pay a separate premium for part D coverage and the deductible, copay/co-insurance is separate from your major medical costs.

What are the Takeaways in this Comparison?

  • You have to DO THE MATH. Compare the prices of Medigap (supplemental) plans available in your area with that out of pocket maximum you are responsible for with a Medicare Advantage plan.
    • For example, a Medigap plan with a premium of $300 per month will cost you $3600 per year and cover most of your out of pocket expenses as long as the provider is a Medicare provider. Whereas with an Advantage plan, you are on the hook for up to $7500 in-network and potentially up to $10,000 for out-of-network care. 
  • Your office visit co-pays, co-insurances, and any plan deductibles for Medicare Advantage plans count toward that out of pocket maximum. However, your DRUG costs DO NOT. They have separate deductibles and co-pays for prescription drugs.
  • Specialist co-pays can be much higher with Medicare Advantage plans. You also may have to get all of your labs and radiology exams performed as dedicated (called “capitated”) facilities-not necessarily where your provider is.
  • What are your potential out of pocket costs for things like vision and dental? 
  • Do gyms in your area already offer senior discount plans?
  • When you enroll in a plan matters – especially for Medigap plans. If you enroll outside of your initial enrollment period, these plans can look at your pre-existing conditions and charge you more for your premiums or even deny coverage. In some states, you cannot purchase a Medigap plan if you are under 65.
  • If it sounds too good to be true…it probably is. Read the fine print, ask for help from financial counselors, social workers or patients advocates. Counselors are also available through the State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIPS)
  • Take stock of the potential financial implications—short and long term—for any insurance plan you elect. 
  • Use the plan finder to identify plans available in your area and compare costs.
    • Remember that these insurance companies are trying to get your business whereas is a government-operated website focused on providing you with objective information to compare plans available in your area BEFORE you contact a specific company.

In this age of increasing #financialtoxicity, especially in cancer care, patients must be educated about their coverage and their potential costs. You need to resist the lure of “added benefits” and do the work to decide what is in your best interest. I know this is a lot to ask when you are already juggling side effects, treatment schedules and trying to live your lives. But, we can’t just put our heads in the sand and hope for the best when it comes to our medical bills. 

Learn More

Oncolink Health Insurance Webinar Series

Medicare Interactive 

What are you doing to learn more about your coverage, how to maximize it and how to plan for your out-of-pocket expenses?

Christina is a clinical oncology social worker who joined the OncoLink team in 2014. Christina blogs about resources available to the cancer community, as well as general information about coping with cancer practically, emotionally, and spiritually. Christina is also an instructor at the Penn School of Social Policy and Practice and the Financial Navigation Specialist for the Cancer Support Community Helpline. In her spare time, she likes to knit and volunteer with her therapy dogs, Linus, and Huckleberry. She also loves to travel, cook, and is an avid Philly sports fan.

8 thoughts on “Medicare Advantage Plans: Read the Fine Print!

  1. I’m a TNBC patient had chemi-Taxol @U of M mn & taking alternative holistic meds-olive leaf extract, tuermic, a Ezzeaca plus Cat’s claw tea, milk Thistle for NAFLD &Immune mushroom caps. of 7 mushrooms & surgery- both Brest removal & 14 lymph nodes 4W/cancer cancer in right breast &arm pit. Now doing Proton beam radiation drive from Mpls, MN to Mayo Clinics Rochester, MN daily M-F for 5 weeks just finished 1st week I’m 70 on SS and the bills are mounting up in thousions $ I’m on AARP advantage United Health care they don’t cover much & very little or non of need testing or cancer treatments or surgeries and my co-pays &co-insurance(what ever that means) are unreal & deductible is very high. I’ve exhausted list of so called cancer organizations They DONOT help with medical Bills, gas or parking to and from appointments nor lodging they only help 1 time a year 1 month rent 1 month utilities only if they are past due/shut off notices THATS ALL NO HELP WHERE NEEDED!
    I see why poor &or disabled &retired seniors DO NOT GET OR STOP ANY LIFE SAVING TREATMENTS AND MEDICATIONS. H E L P
    The stress of all above fuels inflammation which is root to ALL disease, Stress interfear with bodies immune system and healing process. I NEED HELP THE MEDICAL BILLS are reaching point they threating to turn into collection and some treatments then will be put on hold these are things society don’t know cause Insurance Companies don’t reveal the truth of lack of coverage they just keep raising permeiums & cover less.
    & Cancer organizations take donations “for resource” but DONOT HELP CANCER PATIENTS with cancer related bills and or needed treatments – SO The Poor, Disabled & seniors all in need cannot afford cures &or treatments DIE Unnecessary!
    Can You Help Me ????

  2. Mary, I’d suggest meeting with a social worker at your cancer center for help accessing local resources – there are often smaller local groups providing help to folks. It is open enrollment time, so it would be worth looking at and inputting your medications and seeing if there is a plan that would cover more for you. It might also be helpful to learn a little more about the options and the “lingo” (copays, co-insurance, deductibles, etc) – we have some great videos at It is not easy at all to navigate all this and the bills that go along with it – ask a social worker at the treatment center
    to help you.

  3. Thanks for the info about Medicare advantage plans. A friend of mine wants to take better care of his health. I’ll share this info with my friend as he researches his options for medical insurance.

  4. Thank you for this important information. You have clearly explained comparisons of Medicare and Medicare advantage insurance for me. Now I feel I have made the correct decision to keep original Medicare plan. Before I felt confused and was uncertain about my choice. My cancer/chemo brain makes it difficult for me to focus and clearly comprehend information so your clear, concise article is just what I needed. I will be sharing this!

  5. I like that you said that it is important to plan carefully for your insurance coverage to use the most of it. My mother told me that she is planning to fix her Medicare insurance and benefits of it, she asked if I have any idea what is the best option to do. Thank you for the information, and I’ll be sure to consult a trusted Medicare insurance service as they can help us with our concerns.

  6. I will always swear by Medicare B. When I need to visit Rocky Mountain’s Aurora urgent care, it covers most of my visit. The coverage is especially helpful during cold and flu season, and for my physician exam.

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