This image provided by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services shows what the new Medicare cards will look like. The cards are getting a makeover to fight identity theft. No more Social Security numbers will be placed on the card. Next April, Medicare will begin mailing every beneficiary a new card with a unique new number to identify them. (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services via AP)

Call for help

For Medicare questions and help, appointments with SHIP can be made by calling 877-801-0044. Contact the Tennessee Senior Medicare Patrol at 866-836-7677 for assistance with Medicare billing issues, Medicare appeals and to report Medicare fraud.

It's as easy as A, B, C, D, until you toss the word "Medicare" in front.

Starting today and continuing through Dec. 7, eligible Americans who are age 65 and over or disabled will choose their Medicare health insurance plans.

If they want a plan that fits their health care needs and doesn't break the bank, they'll have to dodge some bullets along the way, advocates say.

"It is open season right now," said Crystal Fairchild, a volunteer coordinator for the State Health Insurance Assistance Program, commonly called SHIP, which provides free and objective Medicare counseling.

Not only is Medicare enrollment "very, very confusing," Fairchild said, many beneficiaries face pressure from insurance agents, marketing companies and scammers.

Fairchild said that during last year's Medicare enrollment, SHIP staff and volunteers saved beneficiaries in the 10-county region of Southeast Tennessee $559,772 in unnecessary insurance expenses.

For this reason, it's important that people review their policies every year. When in doubt, consider getting enrollment help from an unbiased adviser to lessen the chances of being misled or coerced into signing up for the wrong plan.

"What was good for them last year may not be good for them this year — their particular drug may have gone up to a different tier, and of course their medical situation may have changed," Fairchild said.

Loni Hitchcock, who tracks Medicare fraud for Tennessee's Senior Medicare Patrol, said fraudsters are out there hoping to skim some of the money the elderly and disabled will be putting out for health care needs.

Hitchcock said some of the most common scams occur when people give out personal information over the phone.

"People don't think they're going to fall victim to it, but they do — they get these phone calls just out of the blue and think Medicare's calling," Hitchcock said. She said Medicare officials rarely call individuals, and if they do, they won't ask for personal information such as Social Security numbers.

Other Medicare recipients are preyed upon by identity thieves.

In attempt to cut down on fraud cases, Medicare is rolling out new cards starting in April 2018. Hitchcock said she's anticipating scammers will try to take advantage of the potential confusion.

"Medicare hasn't told us how we're going to mail them out, because they don't want the scammers to go pick them out of the mailbox," she said. "Medicare is not charging for this, and it's not going to change their benefits anything that says they are is a scam."

To avoid new-card chaos, update mailing addresses if needed and don't panic if cards are distributed sporadically. New cards will arrive sometime between April 2018 and April 2019, and both the new and old cards will work through December 2019.

Hitchcock said beneficiaries should hold onto their old cards until Jan. 1, 2020, and then dispose of them.

"Don't just throw it away," she said. "Destroy it."

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfree or at 423-757-6673.