Is New App From Feds Your Answer To Navigating Medicare Coverage? It depends


Millennials, beware: Your grandparents are going to start calling you for help downloading the new Medicare smartphone app.

The iPhone and Android app, which launched Feb. 6, is called “What's Covered,” and in keeping with its name, it mostly answers one simple, yes-or-no question: Is this medical procedure included in traditional Medicare?

Milt Roney, a 71-year-old retired government worker inside a well-to-do suburb of Washington, D.C., decided to browse the app with me, though he was skeptical from the outset.

“I wouldn't use an app like that,” Roney said. “[My procedures are] going to be covered, and i am not likely to be worried about it.”

Still, the app, available free from the Google Play and Apple App stores, is part of a broader Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services initiative, called eMedicare, to put more tools and knowledge about Medicare online. (CMS declined a request a job interview.)

But much like the website, it does not delve into individual beneficiaries' specifics. It doesn't ask the other coverage they might have, therefore it can't consider supplementary insurance, deductibles, coinsurance or any other factors that determine cost.

“While usable and great for general information, it does not provide personalized information that might be more useful in making treatment or access decisions,” said Casey Schwarz, senior counsel for the Medicare Rights Center, a nonprofit organization.

Milt's wife, Lisa Roney, 70, joined him to sign up in my own “expert panel,” to download the app and try it.

It's important to note these experts were my plan b. The very first couple I approached told me they'd love to help, but they had “dumb phones” and couldn't download anything.

This highlights what about a more fundamental problem. Lots of people of Medicare age posess zero smartphone, and aren't familiar with apps or comfortable manipulating screens.

According to some report from AARP, 46 percent of people in their 60s don't have smartphones. Only 29 percent from the 70-and-older crowd do. The report suggests that the trend will tick upward, with increased older Americans owning mobile technology every year.

The Roneys both have Medicare Parts A and B, that go over hospitalizations and doctor visits. Both of them have smartphones. As retired government workers, they also have insurance from GEHA, the Government Employees Health Association, which covers their dental care, prescription drugs plus some other expenses. Milt Roney gets some cash from GEHA to hand out brochures at health fairs.

They consider themselves pretty tech-savvy. They have iPads, personal computers and iPhones. Lisa Roney wears a Fitbit.

But they immediately questioned involve the app.

“I'd just pick up the phone and call if I were built with a question about what was covered,” Milt Roney said.

“I'd probably just look it up in the [Medicare] book,” Lisa Roney said, pulling the 2-inch manual from a drawer in her own office.

Then came the first hurdle: downloading the app.

Searching “Medicare” within the Google app store, which is where Android users go, yielded many results. “What's Covered” was initially on the list, but it's far from the only real Medicare-related app around the platform. Same experience of the Apple app store, where it took the Roneys a few minutes to sort out which one was the CMS tool. (It is the one which says “Official Medicare coverage app,” made by the “Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.”)

Having completed this area of the process, we managed to move on.

Opening the app immediately gave each of us a search bar to type in a service or product. (I had been experimenting, too, though still 40 years shy of Medicare eligibility.) Additionally, there are a choice to browse all items and services to determine repairs are covered.

A note to readers: I would not recommend telling your pals you have a fun new game on your phone and then ask them to on-site visit medical procedures to see if they're included in Medicare. I'm able to say from experience, it won't cause you to the most popular 20-something at brunch.

The Roneys' next challenge: figuring out the “search” function.

Lisa Roney entered “dexa scan,” a test her doctor recommended she, like many women her age, undergo to check for osteoporosis.

It yielded no results. To locate it, Lisa had to search through the list of covered procedures and visit “bone mass measurements.” There, she learned that Medicare part b covers such tests once every two years, but nowhere within the information did the word “dexa scan” – the term her doctor used – appear.

Along the way in which, she checked her coverage manual and located no additional information. And, within the time it took her to go through these steps, her husband, Milt, got fed up and merely Googled it. He found the answer immediately.

Such issues with search specificity might be common. One reviewer on the Apple Store lodged a similar complaint.

“You need to know the right terms or see the entire alphabetical index and select likely candidates,” the user wrote. “For instance 'knee brace' comes up with nothing (you need to know to look for generic term 'brace').”

Ultimately, the app is just one other way for beneficiaries, their families and providers to obtain the same information available on the web site and printed within the old-fashioned paper manual they receive by mail. It even uses the same fonts and little apple icons that denote which procedures count as “preventive.”

Schwarz, in the Medicare Rights Center, said lots of beneficiaries will use the electronic resources to determine coverage, but they also get help from social workers, volunteers at nonprofits and family members in their research. The app might help those people access information when they don't wish to use the mobile site, which Schwarz called “not particularly great.”

There is also no information about how to choose a prescription medication plan, or any other supplemental insurance like Medicare Advantage or Medigap plans, what are real and complicated decisions beneficiaries must deal with. But those decisions require more personal information, that the app can't support at this time.

It's also important to remember, Schwarz said, that Medicare doesn't cover only seniors. People of all ages with disabilities also rely on Medicare for health coverage, and they will dsicover the app simpler to use than the traditional website.

The Roneys were unimpressed.

“I'm probably going to delete it immediately after you depart,” Lisa Roney concluded.