When Cindy Hunter received her Medicare card in the mail last spring, she said she "didn't know a lot about Medicare." She and her husband, retired teachers who live in a Philadelphia suburb, decided she didn't need it because she shared his retiree health insurance, which covered her treatment for ovarian cancer.
"We were so thankful we had good insurance," she said. So she sent back the card, telling officials she would keep Medicare Part A, which is free for most older or disabled Americans and covers hospitalization, some nursing home stays and home health care. But she turned down Part B, which covers doctor visits and other outpatient care and comes with a monthly premium charge. A new Medicare card arrived that says she only has Part A.
Her story isn't unique.
When Stan Withers left a job at a medical device company to become vice president of a small start-up near Sacramento, Calif., he took his health insurance with him. Under a federal law known as COBRA, he paid the full cost to continue his coverage from his previous employer. A few years earlier, when he turned 65, he signed up for Medicare's Part A. With the addition of a COBRA plan, he thought he didn't need Medicare Part B.
Hunter and Withers now know they were wrong and are stuck with medical bills their insurance won't cover. Hunter called it "an honest mistake" and said there was nothing in the written materials she and her husband received indicating that if they had Medicare Part A, his retiree coverage could not replace Medicare Part B. Withers had no idea he made a bad choice.
Thousands of seniors unwittingly make similar mistakes every year, believing that because they have some type of health insurance they don't have to worry about signing up for Medicare Part B. Generally, insurance other than that provided by a current employer will not exempt them from Medicare's strict enrollment requirements.
Advocates for seniors and some members of Congress want to fix the problem, backed by a broad, unlikely group of unions, health insurers, patient organizations, health care providers and even eight former Medicare administrators.
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