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Shop around to save during Medicare open enrollment

Spending some time to search for better Medicare coverage can cut your monthly expenses by hundreds of dollars next year, even though the program doesn't make it easy for retirees to find the best deals.

Open enrollment for Medicare started Oct. 15 and ends Dec. 7. If you are happy with your Medicare coverage, you can keep it. If you are enrolled in Part D, Medicare's drug coverage, or a Medicare Advantage plan, an alternative to traditional Medicare provided by private insurers, you can switch your insurance during this period.

"Everyone should double-check their coverage. Don't assume your coverage will stay the same," said Katy Votava, president of Goodcare.com, a health care consulting firm and author of "Making the Most of Medicare: A Guide for Baby Boomers."

Medicare enrollment
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images
Medicare enrollment

Apparently, few Medicare participants use open enrollment to improve their coverage. Only about 10 percent of people switch Medicare Advantage plans and 13 percent adjust their Part D plans, according to Kaiser Family Foundation.

For a little investment of time, the savings can be worth it. The Kaiser foundation found that the average Medicare Advantage enrollee saved $190 annually on their premiums and lowered their out-of-pocket expenses by about $400 when they switched plans during the 2014 open enrollment period.

Thirty-one percent of Medicare's 57 million beneficiaries were enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan this year.

"The lowest premiums aren't a good proxy for picking the best plan. It's about what you will pay in total costs." -Tricia Neuman, director of the Kaiser Family Foundation's Medicare policy program

Enrollees can also find extra savings by changing their Part D prescription drug plans.

A Kaiser analysis found that 46 percent of those who switched plans from 2006 to 2010 reduced their premiums by 5 percent or more, whereas only 8 percent of those who didn't change experienced the same drop in their premiums. Meanwhile, 78 percent of those who did not switch plans paid a premium at least 5 percent higher than the year before, compared with only 46 percent of those who switched plans.

Additional savings matter to retirees because health care costs can devour Social Security benefits.

"The lowest premiums aren't a good proxy for picking the best plan. It's about what you will pay in total costs," said Tricia Neuman, director of the Kaiser Family Foundation's Medicare policy program.

How to find the best plans

The best place to start during open enrollment is the Medicare Plan Finder on the Medicare website.

The tool will compare Part D and Medicare Advantage plans by ZIP code.You will need to list the prescription drugs you take. When using the tool, make sure you name what pharmacy you visit regularly.

"Pick the drug plan with the right pharmacy. You can save a bundle by using your plan's preferred pharmacy network," said Kelly Brantley, vice president of health care advisory firm Avalere Health in Washington.

Need a human being to help you navigate the confusing mess of Medicare jargon and benefits? You can talk to someone at Medicare by calling 800-MEDICARE (800-633-4227) or a person at the Medicare Rights Center's free hotline 800-333-4114 or a counselor at your state's health insurance assistance program. All these people are required to give you unbiased advice about your Medicare options.

"Shop early. Don't wait until the last week of open enrollment," Goodcare.com's Votava said. Medicare hotlines and assistance will have long waits in the last few weeks of open enrollment.