The array of Medicare Advantage (MA) plan options may make it more difficult for seniors to enroll in the best plan for them, according to a new study. Researchers from Harvard Medical School found that seniors, especially those suffering from cognitive impairment, tend to make decisions regarding these plans that are not in their best interest. Sadly, impaired patients stand to gain the most from being enrolled in the best plan.

“We are providing the most complex insurance choices to the very population that is least equipped to make these high-stakes decisions,” said J. Michael McWilliams in an article appearing in the Harvard Gazette. “Most other Americans choose from just a few health plans, but elderly Medicare beneficiaries often have to sift through dozens of options.”

McWilliams and his team looked at 6,672 MA enrollees and the enrollment choices they made between 2004 and 2007. Enrollees demonstrated differing cognition levels and had different plan options depending on where they lived. Researchers determined that an increase in the number of MA plans encouraged participation, but only up to 15 different plan offerings. In locations where 30 or more plans were offered, participation declined. Furthermore, beneficiaries with impaired cognition were much less likely to see the advantage of MA plans, choosing instead to remain in traditional Medicare.

The results of the study led researchers to speculate that cognitively impaired beneficiaries were becoming overwhelmed by the process of selecting an MA plan and choosing traditional Medicare by default. This could be a significant problem due to the rising prevalence of cognitive impairment in the senior population.

“Efforts to limit choice and guide seniors to the most valuable options could especially benefit those with cognitive impairments, who, without more help, appear to be leaving money on the table,” McWilliams said. “Better enrollment decisions could, in turn, strengthen competition by rewarding high-value plans with more enrollees.”

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