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For seniors on Medicare, there are new offerings that may be appealing during COVID-19

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EMS medics treat a senior with COVID-19 symptoms in Houston, Texas.

EMS medics treat a senior with COVID-19 symptoms in Houston, Texas. John Moore/Getty Images

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Medicare provides health care to those 65 and older, and covers more than 60 million Americans. Medicare open enrollment began Thursday. This year, open enrollment looks different, and so do the options seniors have to choose from.

When open enrollment comes around, Medicare beneficiaries are usually bombarded with information in TV, radio and online ads. So people often need assistance in making a choice, said Casey Schwarz, senior counsel for education and federal policy with the nonprofit Medicare Rights Center.

There are federally funded helpers who assist beneficiaries. But this year with the pandemic, “in-person assistance is either limited or not available in some areas,” Schwarz said.

And that means it may be harder for some people to make decisions. This year, there are more options within some plans, including supplemental benefits that aren’t quite health care, but are health care-adjacent, like “meal delivery, transportation to medical appointments,” said Laura Keohane, a health policy professor at Vanderbilt University.

She said that for many seniors, the cost of premiums is the most important factor when picking a plan. And these new benefits may cost more, but “some of these benefits might be more appealing in the time of COVID-19,” Keohane said.

Many of these supplemental benefits were new last year. And there were 250 plans that offered these types of benefits, Keohane said. This year, there are expected to be more than 900. Gerald Kominski, a health policy professor at University of California, Los Angeles, said that’s because “companies may have been cautious about immediately jumping into offering these expanded benefits until they had a better idea about what the cost implications might be.”

And he said that with millions of Medicare beneficiaries, there’s a lot of money at stake.

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