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February 27, 2019

What do seniors think of CMS' new Medicare coverage app? 'I'd probably just look it up in the book,' one says.

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    CMS recently launched a new mobile application that breaks down the medical devices and services Medicare covers, but the technology needed to use the app could present some hurdles for all Medicare beneficiaries, Rachel Bluth reports for Kaiser Health News.

    Medicare 101 cheat sheets: Parts A through D

    About CMS' new Medicare coverage app

    CMS launched the app, called What's Covered, on Feb. 6, to provide Medicare beneficiaries with access to accurate and consistent information about their Medicare coverage. The app includes two main search functions: a search bar that beneficiaries can use to look up specific medical devices or services and an option to browse all items and services, which are organized into subcategories.

    Medicare beneficiaries can use either search function to see if Medicare covers a needed medical device or service, how much Medicare will cover, and how much the beneficiaries will have to pay out of pocket. The app also allows Medicare beneficiaries to view preventive health services covered by their health plans.

    The app currently provides beneficiaries with information on Medicare Parts A and B, and is available for download at no-cost through the Apple App and Google Play stores. The app does not provide information to help users select a prescription drug plan or other supplemental health plans, including Medicare Advantage plans, Bluth reports.

    Bluth sought to determine just how functional the app is for the elderly audience it is designed to serve. To do so, Bluth looked at reviews of the What's Covered app and conducted its own "expert panel" with an elderly couple, Milt Roney and Lisa Roney, who are enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B and consider themselves "tech savvy." The Roneys were asked to download the app and share their experiences as a user.


    Overall, Bluth concluded the "app is just another way for beneficiaries, their families, and providers to find the same information available on the website and printed in the old-fashioned paper manual they receive by mail." But the technology presents several hurdles for elderly Medicare beneficiaries, Bluth reports.

    While testing the app, the Roneys had difficulty identifying the correct app in the Apple and Google app stores, even though the CMS app was the first to appear in the stores' search results.

    Once the app was fully installed on their smartphones, the Roneys then had difficulty generating search result based on the search terms they used. For example, Lisa's doctor had recommended she receive a "dexa scan" to check for osteoporosis. But a search for "dexa scan," yielded no results. Instead, Lisa had to browse through the entire list of items and services and go to "bone mass measurements" to determine whether Medicare covered the service. Ultimately, Lisa found that Medicare Part B covers the tests once every year.

    According to Bluth, the Roneys were not the only ones who experienced such search problems. One reviewer in the Apple store wrote, "You have to know the correct terms or browse the entire alphabetical index and select likely candidates." The reviewer added, "For instance 'knee brace' comes up with nothing (you have to know to search for generic term 'brace')."

    Another barrier to use, according to Bluth, is the app itself. Bluth cites an AARP report found 46% of adults in their 60s do not own smartphones, and only 29% of adults ages 70 and older own smartphones. As such, Bluth determined that many adults who are eligible for Medicare may not own or feel comfortable using a smartphone.

    Final takeaway on the app

    According to Bluth, both Lisa and Milt questioned the need for the app. Milt said, "I'd just pick up the phone and call if I had a question about what was covered," and Lisa said, "I'd probably just look it up in the [Medicare] book." Lisa added that she likely was going to delete the app after the analysis was finished.

    Casey Schwarz, senior counsel for the Medicare Rights Center, told Bluth, "While usable and good for general information, [the app] doesn't provide personalized information that might be more helpful in making treatment or access decisions." However, Schwarz acknowledged the app might help Medicare beneficiaries with disabilities, families, social workers, and volunteers determine whether Medicare will cover a service when they do not want to use, which Schwarz said is "not particularly great" (Bluth, Kaiser Health News, 2/22).

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