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Medicare enrollment: Grappling with complexity, choices

If you qualify for Medicare or have a loved one who does, it’s important to understand the options available during the Medicare open enrollment period through December 7th.  While you would hope a medical insurance program for retirees and the disabled would be easy to understand, it’s more like the Sunday crossword puzzle.  Most people can’t do it without help, and even if you can it takes forever.

Medicare offers health care insurance for those 65 and over and those on Social Security disability benefits.  Within the last ten years Medicare has grown increasingly complex and there are many choices to consider for the next year.

Consider the alphabet soup of Medicare.  Medicare Part A covers hospital costs and is free for enrollees.  Part B covers doctors’ services and other provider costs and has a monthly premium ranging from $100 to over $300 depending on your income.  Prescription drug benefits are offered through private insurance called Part D, which has monthly premiums ranging from $15 to $127 a month in Boulder County with up to a $66 surcharge for higher income recipients.

Part C is also known as Medicare Advantage and is offered by private companies such as Kaiser, Aetna, and Humana.  These plans can replace Part A, Part B, and Part D and offer higher benefits but usually restrictions on what doctor you can see.  Finally there are private Medigap policies that cover deductibles and copays and complement Parts A, B, and D.

Imagine how your average octogenarian copes with the annual barrage of thick envelopes from solicitous insurance companies.  While some can run circles around you with their iPad, others are not comfortable using a computer.  About 75 percent of Medicare recipients have traditional Medicare, and must choose which plan they want for prescription drug coverage each year by early December.  If you don’t make a selection, you’ll continue with the same plan under new terms for 2013.

There are 28 Part D prescription drug plans available in Boulder County for 2013.  They all have different premiums, deductibles, copays, and categories of drugs.  Each plan has a formulary, which is a list of drugs they cover and how much enrollees would have to pay out of pocket for each medicine.  On you can enter in your prescriptions and compare costs from plan to plan.  There are 24 Medicare Advantage plans available locally and over 20 Medigap insurers, each with several flavors of coverage.

What’s the best way to cut through this complexity?  The Find a Plan pages on are a good resource for the internet literate.  Boulder County’s Medicare Counseling program offers classes, webinars, and individual appointments.  Qualified independent insurance agents can be a source of expertise, although most advice given is connected with a sale.  Finally fee-only Medicare consultants such as give impartial advice.

Laid Back Portfolio.   Stock market lore recommends that with stocks you sell in May and then go away.  May confirmed that theory with a 6 percent decline, but every month of the third quarter was up resulting in a 6.35 percent gain in the S&P 500 total return index.  Aren’t you glad you didn’t miss that?  Bonds continued their march with the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index up 1.58 percent.

That gave the Laid Back portfolio another positive quarter of 4.27 percent.  This leaves us up 10.66 percent for the year to date.   Since the beginning of 2011, the Laid Back portfolio has grown from $100,000 to $114,387.  When you think of all of the turmoil over the last two years: the national political sclerosis, the euro crisis, and unrest in the Middle East, Laid Back has done well just staying the course.

Dave Gardner is a certified financial planner in Boulder and is admitted to practice before the IRS.  He can be reached through his web site at