If you have Medicare, you know that as soon as the leaves start falling from the trees, your mailbox will fill up with information about your Medicare choices for 2012.
And, as tempting as it is to ignore it all, you really should take the time to review your current Medicare coverage to see if it will be different next year and whether you want to switch plans.
There's one big change this year that affects most people with Medicare. It's not a change in coverage, but a change in timing.
This year, the annual enrollment period for Medicare Advantage and Medicare prescription drug plans starts and ends earlier. It began Oct. 15 and ends Dec. 7 for changes that take effect Jan. 1, 2012.
This is actually a longer period of time to make a decision (more than seven weeks, instead of the six weeks in past years). But it means that, unlike past years, you can't wait until the very end of the year to decide about your coverage for next year.
The new enrollment period is part of the Affordable Care Act (the health reform law). The longer enrollment period gives people more time to make decisions. And making it earlier means that people won't be changing Medicare plans around the Christmas holidays, when it's hard to get help and paperwork can be delayed.
But it means that those with Medicare, and those who help loved ones with Medicare, need to be on their toes this year to make sure they meet the earlier deadline of Dec. 7.
So, what should you do during the upcoming enrollment period?
First, you should review the coverage you have now. If you have a Part D prescription drug plan or Medicare Advantage plan, you should get a letter from your plan (your "Annual Notice of Change") by the end of September. Don't ignore it! That letter will tell you how your plan will be changing next year. Check to see what will happen with your premiums and copayments. Find out if coverage of particular drugs or services is changing.
Then take some time to look at your other options. Maybe you can find a different drug or Medicare Advantage plan that's cheaper or better fits your needs. Or, maybe the plan you have now is the best one for you.
Here are a few tips:
If you have original Medicare and a supplemental plan (sometimes called Medigap), and you like your coverage, you don't need to change. Be very careful if you do decide to drop your Medigap plan - you may not be able to get it back later. Each state has its own rules about purchasing Medigap plans.
Don't fall for any high-pressure sales. Everyone with Medicare has the same enrollment period: Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. There are no "limited-time offers." Don't make any changes in your coverage until you fully understand the consequences.
Don't be shy - do your research, ask questions, and get help if you want it. The Medicare.gov website lists all the plans in your area. You can call 800-MEDICARE for general information and to enroll in a plan. You also can ask for a referral to your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program, or SHIP. There's one in every state, and they provide free counseling and advice to everyone with Medicare.
If you or someone you know has limited income and resources, there are programs that can help with your costs. Talk to your local SHIP or go to the Social Security website: www.ssa.gov/prescriptionhelp.
If you decide to enroll in a new plan, do it through 800-MEDICARE, rather than through the plan itself.
The annual enrollment period is a good time to take stock of your Medicare coverage, even if you're happy with what you have. Just remember, Dec. 7 is the last day you can make changes for coverage starting in January 2012.
Pollack is executive director of Families USA.