Editor's note: This is the first of three stories on Medicare. The second part looks at supplemental insurance, also known as Medigap and the third part looks at prescription drug plans.

It's time to do a Medicare health-insurance review if you or a close relative is 65 or older.

Each year, from Nov. 15 through Dec. 31, you can join, switch or drop your current prescription drug coverage plan. It is also the best time to sit down and review all your coverage.

In this three-part series, I outline the ABCs of Medicare, tell you what has changed and provide some tips to consider.

Stepping Through the ABCs

If you are 65 or over and don't have insurance through your current or former employer you have two choices on how to get health coverage.

Original Medicare, which is managed by the federal government, is broken into Part A (hospital coverage) and Part B (medical/physician coverage). With Original Medicare you can see any doctor, specialist or hospital that accepts Medicare. Original Medicare pays providers 80% of approved amounts so you are on the hook for the remaining 20%, an amount you are unlikely to know ahead of seeing a physician. Also, Original Medicare does not cover all costs so you need to buy supplemental coverage (we discuss this below) to fill in the gaps.

Most people don't pay for Part A coverage, but Part B will cost you a premium of $96.40 per month in 2008. If your modified adjusted gross income is greater than $82,000 (or $164,000 for joint filers) then your premium amount will be adjusted higher. Part B benefits don't kick in until you meet a $135 yearly deductible.

Your other choice is to use a Medicare Advantage plan offered by a private insurer (this is Part C of the Medicare program). You will pay a set co-payment for doctor visits so you will know in advance your cost obligations. On the downside, you will often be limited to a network of providers, and comparing health plans from different insurers is challenging.

Simplicity is one of the main advantages of joining an MA plan. With such a plan you receive more complete coverage so there is no need to buy additional supplemental insurance, including prescription drug coverage.

You'll want to use the tools on this Web site to screen your choice of plans. The Compare Health Plans and Medigap Policies in Your Area link, located toward the bottom of the screen, will allow you to see all the MA plans available in your zip code.

The list also includes some essential information including the monthly premium charge (if any), the estimated annual cost you should expect to pay (including premium and costs not covered by your insurer) and select plan benefit components.

The real meat of the information, though, is available once you click on the plan name. Here you will see contact information, out-of-pocket limits (a key figure), coverage for both inpatient and outpatient care, preventative services and more details on prescription drug, vision and dental benefits.

Narrowing down the ones you want to look at is the tough part. My recommendation is to call your physicians first and find out which plans they take (they will also probably know what plans the local area hospitals belong to).

Unfortunately, the list you first see on the Medicare site is a plan name -- which is a marketing name and not the name of the insurer, which is what your provider will most likely give you.

For instance, when I put in my zip code, one of the plans I find is called Medicare Masterpiece. But when I click on the link, I find the insurer is Universal Healthcare.

(One hint: AARP plans are provided by UnitedHealthcare, a unit of UnitedHealth Group (UNH).)

You can find a list of the largest Medicare Advantage providers in each state at the end of this article.

Once you have eliminated the ones your physicians don't accept, you will need to dig into the details to compare cost and coverage among the plans.

Keep in mind that the plan premium amount does not include the Part B premium you have to pay to Medicare. So if the plan charges $19 per month, that is on top of the $96.40 Part B premium deducted from your social security check.

One interesting item: If you use the Compare Health Plans and Medigap Policies in Your Area tool and enter Original Medicare as your current coverage, it will give you the estimated annual cost you will incur. Results for my zip indicated a cost of $4,950 -- approximately $1500 to $2000 more than most of the MA plans listed. The reason is Original Medicare is not complete coverage and therefore it will cost you more to cover the gaps -- which is why you need to purchase supplemental insurance if you are going with Original Medicare.

LARGEST MEDICARE ADVANTAGE INSURERS BY STATE
(Premiums are in millions of dollars.)
Alabama
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
UNITED HEALTHCARE OF ALABAMA INC 85,412,589
HEALTHSPRING OF ALABAMA INC 71,101,904
VIVA HEALTH INC (AL) 54,802,611
Alaska
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
STERLING LIFE INS CO (IL) 31,327
HEALTHSPRING OF TENNESSEE INC 2,176
Arizona
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
PACIFICARE OF ARIZONA INC (A UNITEDHEALTH GROUP COMPANY) 251,030,986
HEALTH NET OF ARIZONA INC 90,716,139
CIGNA HEALTHCARE OF ARIZONA INC 82,548,320
Arkansas
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
ARKANSAS COMMUNITY CARE INC 8,562,662
STERLING LIFE INS CO (IL) 3,714,066
CARE IMPROVEMENT PLUS SOUTH CENTRAL (AR) 2,991,044
Colorado
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
KAISER FOUNDATION HP OF CO 156,150,969
PACIFICARE OF COLORADO INC (A UNITEDHEALTH GROUP COMPANY) 151,018,229
ROCKY MOUNTAIN HEALTH MAINT ORG (CO) 12,188,774
Connecticut
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
HEALTH NET OF CONNECTICUT INC 106,368,380
WELLCARE OF CONNECTICUT INC 6,563,632
OXFORD HEALTH PLANS (CT) INC (A UNITEDHEALTH GROUP COMPANY) 3,893,751
Delaware
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
STERLING LIFE INS CO (IL) 2,712,471
HEALTHSPRING OF TENNESSEE INC 24,376
DELAWARE PHYSICIANS CARE - MEDICARE 1,837
D.C.
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
KAISER FOUNDATION HP MID-ATL STATES (MD) 10,771,088
AETNA HEALTH INC (A MARYLAND CORP) 152,425
HEALTHSPRING OF TENNESSEE INC 30,439
Florida
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
HUMANA MEDICAL PLAN INC (FL) 747,048,274
CAREPLUS HEALTH PLANS INC (FL) 182,366,006
WELLCARE OF FLORIDA INC 168,601,956
Georgia
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE INS CO INC (FL) 32,426,981
BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD OF GEORGIA (A WELLPOINT COMPANY) 9,885,229
CARE IMPROVEMENT PLUS SOUTH CENTRAL (AR) 6,986,670
Hawaii
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
KAISER FOUNDATION HP INC HI 57,624,108
HAWAII MEDICAL SERVICE ASSOCIATION 18,789,933
ALOHACARE 2,334,690
Idaho
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
BLUE CROSS OF IDAHO HEALTH SERVICE 39,354,862
STERLING LIFE INS CO (IL) 14,594,727
REGENCE BLUESHIELD OF IDAHO INC 5,233,717
Illinois
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
HUMANA HEALTH PLAN INC (KY) 73,400,941
HEALTHSPRING OF TENNESSEE INC 24,075,932
HEALTH ALLIANCE MEDICAL PLANS (IL) 20,125,848
Indiana
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
M PLAN (IN) 6,677,616
ARNETT HMO INC (A UNITEDHEALTH GROUP COMPANY) 6,543,178
ANTHEM INS COMPANIES INC (A WELLPOINT COMPANY) 6,358,431
Iowa
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
WELLMARK INC (IA) 5,782,319
MEDICAL ASSOCIATES HEALTH PLAN INC (IA) 3,816,989
UNITED HEALTHCARE OF THE MIDLANDS (IA) 3,309,638
Kansas
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
HUMANA HEALTH PLAN INC (KY) 20,252,972
COVENTRY HEALTH & LIFE INS CO (DE) 7,106,653
COVENTRY HEALTH CARE OF KANSAS INC (KS) 4,557,727
Kentucky
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
UNIVERSITY HEALTH CARE INC (KY) 29,960,289
ANTHEM HEALTH PLANS OF KENTUCKY INC (A WELLPOINT COMPANY) 26,646,871
STERLING LIFE INS CO (AN AON COMPANY) 6,066,130
Lousiana
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
HUMANA HEALTH BENEFIT PLAN LA 153193269
TENET CHOICES INC (LA) 98051534
STERLING LIFE INS CO (AN AON COMPANY) 27431787
Maine
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
FOX INS CO (AZ) 794,579
MARTINS POINT GENERATIONS LLC (ME) 425,392
ARCADIAN HEALTH PLAN INC (WA) 113,549
Maryland
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
BRAVO HEALTH MID-ATLANTIC INC (MD) 31,504,921
KAISER FOUNDATION HP MID-ATL STATES 19,111,946
AETNA HEALTH INC (A MARYLAND CORP) 10,849,681
Massachusetts
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
TUFTS ASSOCIATED HEALTH MAINT ORG (MA) 213,933,148
BLUE CROSS & BLUE SHIELD MA HMO BLUE 97,634,939
FALLON COMMUNITY HEALTH PLAN (MA) 92,536,265
Michigan
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD OF MICHIGAN 138,979,068
HEALTH ALLIANCE PLAN OF MICHIGAN 58,629,169
BLUE CARE NETWORK OF MICHIGAN 19,501,950
Minnesota
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
MEDICA HEALTH PLANS 71,370,583
MEDICA INS CO 56,749,052
BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD OF MINNESOTA 14,669,877
Mississippi
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
HEALTHSPRING OF TENNESSEE INC 4,212,288
WELLCARE HEALTH INS OF ARIZONA INC 3,186
Missouri
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
UNITED HEALTHCARE OF THE MIDWEST INC 103,686,140
GROUP HEALTH PLAN INC (A COVENTRY COMPANY) 45,816,110
MERCY HEALTH PLANS OF MISSOURI INC 41,239,709
Montana
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
STERLING LIFE INS CO (IL) (AN AON COMPANY) 13,777,791
NEW WEST HEALTH SERVICES (MT) 2,223,323
BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD OF MONTANA 870,178
Nebraska
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
UNITED HEALTHCARE OF THE MIDLANDS 11,707,100
BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD OF NEBRASKA 2,752,685
STERLING LIFE INS CO (IL) (AN AON COMPANY) 363,077
Nevada
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
HEALTH PLAN OF NEVADA INC (A SIERRA HEALTH SERVICES COMPANY) 145,115,315
PACIFICARE OF NEVADA INC (A UNITEDHEALTH GROUP COMPANY) 62,800,769
HOMETOWN HEALTH PLAN INC 10,511,524
New Hampshire
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
HARVARD PILGRIM HC OF NEW ENGLAND (MA) 2,954,376
ANTHEM INS COMPANIES INC (IN) (A WELLPOINT COMPANY) 558,365
FOX INS CO (AZ) 126,647
New Jersey
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
HORIZON HEALTHCARE OF NEW JERSEY INC 156,931,261
AETNA HEALTH INC (A NEW JERSEY CORP) 79,251,882
OXFORD HEALTH PLANS (NJ) INC (A UNITEDHEALTH GROUP COMPANY) 49,840,056
New Mexico
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
LOVELACE HEALTH SYSTEMS INC (NM) 52,140,025
PRESBYTERIAN HEALTH PLAN INC (NM) 39,004,578
HCSC INS SERVICES CO (IL) (A HEALTHCARE SVC CORP COMPANY) 1,904,837
New York
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
HEALTH INSURANCE PLAN OF GREATER NY 518,624,364
OXFORD HEALTH PLANS (NY) INC (A UNITEDHEALTH GROUP COMPANY) 276,575,956
EMPIRE HEALTHCHOICE HMO INC (A WELLPOINT COMPANY) 197,495,189
North Carolina
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
PARTNERS NATIONAL HEALTH PLANS OF NC (A BCBS OF NC COMPANY) 95,201,245
UNITED HEALTHCARE OF NC INC 82,224,059
WELLCARE HEALTH INS OF ARIZONA INC 4,255,413
North Dakota
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
NORIDIAN MUTUAL INS CO (ND) (A BCBS COMPANY) 169,209
MEDICA INS CO 98,160
FOX INS CO (AZ) 41,857
Ohio
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
COMMUNITY INS CO (OH) (A WELLPOINT COMPANY) 213,934,621
UNITED HEALTHCARE OF OHIO INC 130,527,886
MOUNT CARMEL HEALTH PLAN INC (OH) 60,343,395
Oklahoma
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
COMMUNITYCARE HMO INC (OK) 51,779,943
PACIFICARE OF OKLAHOMA INC (A UNITEDHEALTH GROUP COMPANY) 46,315,952
STERLING LIFE INS CO (IL) (AN AON COMPANY) 12,059,880
Oregon
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
KAISER FOUNDATION HP NORTHWEST (OR) 96,565,042
PROVIDENCE HEALTH PLAN (OR) 94,843,620
REGENCE BL CROSS BL SHIELD OREGON 73,267,475
Pennsylvania
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
KEYSTONE HEALTH PLAN WEST INC (PA) (A HIGHMARK COMPANY) 536,310,248
KEYSTONE HEALTH PLAN EAST INC (PA) (AN INDEPENDENCE BC COMPANY) 441,428,033
UPMC HEALTH PLAN INC (PA) 139,619,009
Rhode Island
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD OF RI 108,330,477
UNITED HEALTHCARE OF NEW ENGLAND INC (RI) 48,293,492
HEALTHSPRING OF TENNESSEE INC 9,113
South Carolina
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE INS CO INC (FL) 23,852,353
STERLING LIFE INS CO (IL) (AN AON COMPANY) 6,901,387
CARE IMPROVEMENT PLUS SOUTH CENTRAL (AR) 4,855,143
South Dakota
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
WELLMARK OF SOUTH DAKOTA INC 1,393,545
STERLING LIFE INS CO (IL) (AN AON COMPANY) 102,806
FOX INS CO (AZ) 42,016
Tennessee
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
HEALTHSPRING OF TENNESSEE INC 118,628,615
CARITEN HEALTH PLAN INC (TN) 96,386,844
UNITEDHEALTHCARE PLAN RIVER VALLEY (IL) 75,133,825
Texas
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
PACIFICARE OF TEXAS INC (A UNITEDHEALTH GROUP COMPANY) 330,245,398
SELECTCARE OF TEXAS LLC 101,039,883
TEXAS HEALTHSPRING LLC 97,866,085
Utah
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
REGENCE BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD OF UT 23,396,441
UNITED HEALTHCARE OF UTAH 7,943,958
UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE INS CO INC (FL) 5,573,782
Vermont
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
STERLING LIFE INS CO (IL) (AN AON COMPANY) 12,111
HEALTHSPRING OF TENNESSEE INC 4,101
Virginia
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
KAISER FOUNDATION HP MID-ATL STATES (MD) 13,175,458
OPTIMA HEALTH INS CO (VA) 4,055,944
WELLCARE HEALTH INS OF ARIZONA INC 1,660,599
Washington
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
GROUP HEALTH COOPERATIVE (WA) 161,409,275
PACIFICARE OF WASHINGTON INC (A UNITEDHEALTH GROUP COMPANY) 104,842,338
STERLING LIFE INS CO (IL) ( AN AON CORPORATION) 45,040,867
West Virginia
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
COVENTRY HEALTH & LIFE INS CO (DE) 16,676,827
HEALTH PLAN OF THE UPPER OHIO VALLEY(WV) 11,272,373
UPMC HEALTH BENEFITS INC (PA) 3,903,488
Wisconsin
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD OF WISCONSIN (A WELLPOINT COMPANY) 57,775,448
UNITED HEALTHCARE OF WISCONSIN INC 41,780,297
SECURITY HEALTH PLAN OF WI INC 33,953,623
Wyoming
Company Name (Domicile State) Premiums
BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD OF WYOMING 82,651
ROCKY MOUNTAIN HEALTH MAINT ORG (CO) 37,531
STERLING LIFE INS CO (IL) (AN AON CORPORATION) 32,952
(Based on premiums as of 3/31/07)
Source: tba
Donna O'Rourke joined Weiss Ratings, now TheStreet.com Ratings Inc., in 1999, and is the senior analyst responsible for assigning financial safety ratings to health insurers and supporting other health care-related consumer products including Medicare supplement insurance, long-term care insurance and elder care information. She conducts industry analysis in these areas. She has more than 10 years experience in credit risk management and analyses. Previously she served as an assistant vice president at the Union Bank of Switzerland, where she analyzed hedge funds, insurance companies and structured products in support of the derivatives and foreign exchange businesses. She holds a bachelor of science in management from Binghamton University and a master's of science in health systems administration from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

While O'Rourke cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, she appreciates your feedback; click here to send her an email.