Every year — from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7 — Medicare beneficiaries get the chance to review their plans and make changes to those plans if they so desire.
What, if anything, do financial advisers do to help their clients who are Medicare beneficiaries figure out which plan might be right for them? Do they have expertise in-house, or do they outsource this service? Or do they not offer services related to Medicare?
Brad Pistole, the president of Trinity Insurance & Financial Services, has a Medicare specialist on staff. “The majority of our clients are 60-plus,” he said. “We keep a running list of those who turn 65 in the coming 12 months. We send out letters to the clients reminding them we handle all aspects of Medicare and Social Security. We tell them not to worry about anything. We help register them on Medicare.gov and get their Medicare cards for them. Then we talk to them about their specific situation and set up the best Medicare, prescription drug plan and dental plan for them.”
Pistole’s firm also runs a Social Security report for clients and shows them how to maximize their Social Security benefits.
“In today’s competitive world, if you don’t provide things like this, your competitor will,” he said. “And since he/she offers multiple lines of services, your clients might jump ship to a “all in one place” service plan. This crazy world of Covid makes people hesitant to go to multiple places for service. The more you can offer, the better chance you have of retaining your clients.”
Pistole, however, might be the exception to the rule — at least at the moment. Most financial advisers seem to outsource their help with respect to Medicare plans.
Roger Whitney, the president of Agile Retirement Management, estimates the long-term costs of Medicare but the “navigation of the Medicare decision” is outsourced.
And the outsourced solution for Whitney’s firm is Boomer Benefits. “The Medicare structure allows for providers such as Boomer Benefits to have profitable business helping consumers without too much conflict of interest,” he said.
When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, however, Whitney said his firms play a much bigger role in helping clients. “The current ACA structure doesn’t offer incentives for insurance experts to assist consumers,” he said. “Everything we do is fee-only. We are not health insurance pros, but we are pros in organized decision making.”
Matthew Ricks, a certified financial planner with Haystack Financial Planning, also outsources the application process for Medicare. In his case, he uses Joanne Giardini-Russell of Giardini Medicare. “Most of the advice regarding Medicare is based on cost and comparison of coverage versus what's available at their current employer or, if they are disabled and under 65, whether or not it's worthwhile to get Part B,” said Ricks.
Danielle Harrison, a fee-only financial planner at Harrison Financial Planning in Columbia, Missouri, is also among those financial planners who outsources the Medicare decision. “Health care planning is a very integral part of an overall financial plan,” she said. “Medicare options can be complicated and are ever-changing.”
Harrison offers her clients basic education around Medicare options and because she knows their particular situation and can discuss items to keep in mind when making their decisions. “I also provide tax planning to potentially help lower the cost of Medicare premiums,” she said.
After that stage, Harrison said it’s important to her to connect her clients with an individual “who I am confident not only understands all the options available to them but is passionate about doing what is right and in their best interest.”
This can take some work, but she found that in Kari Vogt, a licensed insurance agent at Senior Benefit Services. Vogt used to do "traditional" financial planning but saw such a need for Medicare planning that she no longer does planning in the traditional sense and only assists seniors with their Medicare insurance. “I personally handle only and all Medicare clients.”
In her current practice, Vogt meets with those who are brand new to Medicare at 64 and assists them with the initial enrollment process, and she also meets with those who have been on Medicare for 30 years.
As an independent agent, she feels confident that her recommendations are unbiased, and – as a result - she’s become the outsource solution to financial advisers in her community, including Harrison. “The relationship fits perfectly,” she said. “If you are not incorporating Medicare planning as a piece of your financial planning, I believe you are doing a disservice to your clients. Medicare enrollment at 65 can be incredibly overwhelming and having a trusted source to go to for all of your questions and help you to sort through all of the moving pieces can make the transition much less daunting.”
For her part, Harrison has nothing but praise for Vogt. “Not only is she a fellow CFP who decided to make Medicare her primary focus, she can offer plans from over 50 different providers rather than only offering the products of one carrier like captive Medicare insurance agents,” said Harrison.
In addition to obtaining America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) certification, which is required to represent Medicare Advantage and stand-alone prescription drug plans, you must also take each specific insurance carrier's certification requirements on an annual basis, said Harrison. “Although this is a lot of work, it is important to (Vogt) to be educated on and able to offer clients the plan that works best for them,” she said. “There are new types of Medicare Advantage plans offered and new benefits offered, so it is critical to stay up-to-date with training in order to be truly unbiased.”
One of the most valuable aspects in the service Vogt provides is ensuring that the drug plan a client is on is the best fit. Taking a list of your medications and finding the best plan can take time, but makes a huge difference for clients, said Harrison.
To be fair, there are many outside experts that financial advisers can use to help their clients with Medicare decisions. Jae Oh, author of Maximize Your Medicare, is a frequent contributor to Retirement Daily as is Katy Votava, president of Goodcare.com and author of Making the Most of Medicare: A Guide for Baby Boomers.
According to Anthea Perkinson, a principal at Monterey Associates in New York and director of Money Made Simple, part of her role in helping clients prepare for a financially secure retirement is to push them to make well-considered decisions regarding Medicare coverage and to remind them of the sign-up window as they approach age 65.
“In addition to understanding what basic Medicare covers, they need to know the difference between Medigap policies and Medicare Advantage plans before they can make the best choice for their particular health coverage needs,” she said.
As a fee-only hourly planner, Perkinson doesn’t sell insurance nor any other products, and she tries to prevent clients from receiving basic education from anyone with products to sell. “I typically send clients to free, objective sources of information on Medicare and supplemental insurance options first,” she said.
Her favorites include Medicare Interactive, from the nonprofit Medicare Rights Center and, for New Yorkers, the NYC Department for The Aging, which offers free, expert guidance over the telephone. (New Yorkers can call 311 and ask for HIICAP (Health Insurance Information Counseling and Assistance Program) for help with Medicare questions. There are Medicare counselors available by appointment at branches of the NY Public Library, too, she said.
Another resource: the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP); Your local SHIP will provide you in depth, one-on-one insurance counseling and assistance with Medicare.
“Once clients understand the choices they need to make, I am happy to refer them to an agent who offers Medicare policies, but I will say that a lot of clients end up signing up for what they want through AARP,” said Perkinson. “As a familiar brand and trusted source of retirement-related information, I understand why people would find it just as easy to work through AARP to check this off their to-do list.”