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Your Essential Guide To Medicare Advantage For 2013

It's open enrollment -- the period each year when you can choose or change your Medicare health and drug plans. You can enroll or change plans from Oct. 15 until Dec. 7. Whatever changes you make will take effect Jan. 1, 2013.

Medicare Advantage plans (also called Medicare Part C) are offered by private insurers and cover Part A (hospital stays) and Part B (doctor's visits). Most Medicare Advantage plans also include drug coverage.

If you choose a Medicare Advantage plan, you can't buy a Medicare supplemental insurance plan (known as Medigap) to pay for your out-of-pocket costs. If the Medicare Advantage plan you choose has drug coverage, you can't buy Part D drug coverage.

The federal government provides an online brochure about Medigap insurance.

Enrollment in Medicare Advantage to rise

More seniors than ever are expected to enroll in private Medicare Advantage plans for next year. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius expects an 11 percent increase in enrollment. But alarmingly, a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in four seniors aren't even aware of open enrollment.

The federal government expects the average Medicare Advantage premium to increase only $1.47 over 2012. That would bring monthly payments to an average of $32.59. The number of Medicare Advantage plan choices is expected to increase by 7 percent next year.

When Medicare Advantage plan originally started as an alternative to original Medicare, they were basically HMOs, which require subscribers to have gatekeepers to treatment (primary care physicians) to control costs, says Martin Rosen, co-founder of Health Advocate Inc., of Plymouth Meeting, Pa., a company that helps people navigate the health care system.

But Medicare Advantage plans have progressed. Today, Rosen says, you can find an Medicare Advantage plan that's a preferred provider organization (PPO).

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