Seniors take advantage of Medicare Advantage | News, Sports, Jobs


When 2023 Medicare enrollment begins Saturday, beneficiaries in the Minot area could see new options for their health coverage, particularly when it comes to their Medicare Advantage choices.

Nationwide, enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans has doubled in the last decade, with now nearly half of Medicare beneficiaries choosing to get coverage from those plans. 

In North Dakota, the percentage is 8.5%, according to the Better Medicare Alliance, but the rate of increase exceeds the national average. That may be in part due to the fact that many North Dakotans until recently had few if any choices related to Medicare Advantage plans. Now there are a handful of companies providing options, and with the expansion of those companies to serve additional counties, more beneficiaries are signing up.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, which launched its NextBlue Medicare Advantage plans in five counties in 2021, is expanding the plans from this year’s 40 counties to 52 of the state’s 53 counties in 2023. The only county outside the fold is Stark County, which NextBlue officials expect will be added in the near future.

Beth West, NextBlue Plan president, said it was important for BCBSND to get into the Medicare Advantage market as an established in-state insurer. It is the only North Dakota-based company offering a Medicare Advantage plan in the state, she said.

West attributed the gravitation of Baby Boomers to Medicare Advantage to the plans’ style of benefits, which is similar to the employer plans they often are familiar with. They are accustomed to plans with co-pays, networks and supplemental benefits such as dental and vision, she said. 

“Medicare Advantage is definitely liked and and felt to be pretty comparable, and the premiums are low for Medicare Advantage plans,” she said. “People are just very much interested in learning about it and exploring it and enrolling.”

Medicare Advantage plans have become popular because of their all-in-one approach to coverage and extra benefits, such as dental, hearing and vision insurance. Traditional Medicare requires a separate prescription drug plan, and many people opt for a supplemental policy to assist with their share of medical costs not picked up by Medicare, leaving them with three different insurance plans to monitor.

Medicare Advantage plans also have annual out-of-pocket maximums, providing protection against catastrophic healthcare costs. Original Medicare generally covers about 80% of beneficiaries’ health care costs, leaving them to cover the remaining 20% out of pocket or with supplemental insurance with no annual limit.

“The popularity of Medicare Advantage is rooted in plans that offer more for consumers’ Medicare dollar,” according to United Healthcare, which offers six of the plans in North Dakota. “North Dakota and Ward County, in particular, have outpaced the national Medicare Advantage growth trend, with 19% growth year-over-year across the state and 33% year-over-year growth in Ward County – and UnitedHealthcare enrolled more individual MA members in Ward County in 2022 than any other carrier.”

United Healthcare and NextBlue both entered the Ward County market in January 2022. 

United Healthcare reports it is enhancing its comprehensive dental benefits and rolling out a new member identification card that can be used to access all medical services, fitness gyms, earned rewards and the benefit credit for over-the-counter healthcare products.

West said NextBlue is offering updates in 2023 that include improved dental benefits and adjustments to the maximum out-of-pocket cost. The dental and vision benefits and Silver Sneakers fitness program are among features of NextBlue that catch people’s attention, she added. NextBlue also offers a benefit for over-the-counter health products, such as pain medicines and vitamins.

NextBlue has had two plans and will be adding a third in 2023 specifically for veterans to provide medical support beyond Veterans Administration benefits.

NextBlue received a 4.5-star rating this year from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) based on surveys and reviews of how well a plan meets members’ needs, member perception of the plan’s  organization and providers, prescription drug management, responsiveness of the plan, quality of care, and member complaints and departures from the plan each year.

“We’re very excited about that,” West said. “Out of the 34 plans that this was their first-year rating nationally, there were only three plans that rated a 4.5 or higher, and we were one of the three, so we’re very proud of that rating.”

The CMS website at Medicare.gov provides easy-to-use information to allow people to compare options for health and drug coverage, which may change from year to year. The website’s tools allow side-by-side comparisons, and it includes links to company websites and consumer phone lines to call for more information.

People also can call 1-800-MEDICARE for help 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Personalized health insurance counseling is available at no cost from the State Health Insurance Assistance Program at 888-575-6611, or TTY 1-800-366-6888.

Beneficiaries with limited income and resources may qualify for Medicare Saving Programs run by the state Medicaid program. For information, visit nd.gov online and search for Medicare Premium Assistance Program or call 328-2310 or 800-472-2622 or 711 (TTY).

Local insurance agents who sell Medicare Advantage plans also can serve as a source of information. 

For information on NextBlue specifically, residents can contact one of BCBSND’s local offices or one of the 150 trained agents across the state who sell the plans. NextBlue will be the topic of a series of informational events in the Minot region in coming weeks, at which people can learn more and talk with an agent. A schedule of events can be obtained at nextbluend.com or by calling 1-800-241-2567.

Medicare Open Enrollment runs through Dec. 7.



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