CMS is updating Medicare.gov, Administrator Seema Verma said Monday, with a new initiative dubbed eMedicare. The multi-year push aims to improve online resources for Medicare beneficiaries to help them narrow down choices when deciding on a plan.
Components of the effort include a revamped coverage wizard allowing users to compare the average cost of different plans, a standalone out of pocket cost calculator for both overall and prescription drug costs, a simplified login for the Medicare Plan Finder and a customer service webchat. These facets of eMedicare will be phased in before open enrollment begins Oct. 15.
Verma said it builds on the agency's commitment to presenting transparent and straightforward options for seniors, along with a more personalized customer experience "while they make this very important decision" about coverage. CMS is not eliminating any of the pre-existing ways beneficiaries receive information.
CMS cast the latest effort as a step in its bid to reduce paperwork and make Medicare more efficient. It will likely take years to gauge whether these revised portals are serving beneficiaries better or making the system run more smoothly. Improved customer experience, however, is a key goal right now for commercial and government payers.
Verma highlighted five specific units in Monday's announcement that build on previous modernizations, along with a simplified and easy-to-use Medicare.gov. All changes underwent user testing before being implemented, according to CMS.
The Medicare coverage options tool, launched last year with 10 questions that funnel beneficiaries into a range of plans based on their answers, was winnowed down to five health, preference and lifestyle queries.
The Medicare cost comparison tool, based on the same data that runs Medicare Plan Finder, will allow beneficiaries to conduct a side-by-side analysis of traditional Medicare (with or without a Medigap policy or a drug plan) and Medicare Advantage plans with drug coverage (with options to select a low, medium or high premium).
CMS said 2017 saw the most traffic for My Medicare Plan Finder since the tool's inception in 2004. Due to the uptick, the agency simplified the login process and added a customer service web chat for authenticated users that will go into effect along with open enrollment.
Though a more optimized online experience has been a long time coming, there are concerns around potentially unintended consequences of such tools. In the absence of guidelines or cautions, the initiative could potentially present estimates as fact and cause recipients to inadvertently select a specific plan when another option might be better tailored to their health and financial needs.
For example, the out-of-pocket cost calculator uses the most common Medigap plan, an F plan, in its algorithm to calculate costs, but it doesn't explain that simplification to the consumer. The omission could create some confusion for the average layperson.
Additionally, website visitors must select if they are of poor, good or excellent health for the calculator. That could be problematic as people tend to not be good judges of their overall wellness, and health status can change in an instant — especially for Medicare's elderly and disabled population.
The rigid selections could cause complacency in insurance and plan selection, an arena that is perhaps better served with a healthy dose of caution.
But "we think it’s very important for our beneficiaries to make the choices that are going to work best for them," Verma said. "This isn't meant to push people in any way… Ultimately, the final decision is theirs."
Verma termed the new eMedicare schemes the "beginning of a lot of things that we’re going to launch," telling reporters to expect lots of CMS news to break within the next couple of weeks revolving around the kickstarting of open enrollment, quality information and user-friendliness, mobile optimization and price transparency.