It’s now crunch time to apply for or make changes to your Medicare health coverage for the year ahead.

The Dec. 7 deadline for annual open enrollment is drawing near, and that means you only have about three weeks left to set up a plan that will go into effect on Jan. 1.

That time will pass faster than a New York minute, so it’s important to be prepared. Knowing what to ask and where to go for answers are vital parts of navigating the Medicare open enrollment process.

Fortunately for seniors, more online resources have become available in recent years that are geared toward making the experience easier.

For most people 65 and older, the first place to look for additional information is medicare.gov, the government’s official site. There you can find health and drug plans, apply for Medicare, find answers to common questions about coverage, and review and compare coverage options.

The site can also help you track down your current enrollment information if you don’t have it handy — though all Medicare beneficiaries should have received an Annual Notice of Change letter from their current insurance provider in the mail at this point.

The letter, mailed out by late September, explains what, if any, changes are being made to your current Medicare plan, says Patricia Barry, author of “Medicare for Dummies” and features editor for AARP Media.

Her advice is to identify what’s new with your old plan and then use that information to compare it with other coverage options being offered in your area.

Comparison-shopping for health plans can be taxing, but the benefits can far outweigh the costs both figuratively and literally.

“Admittedly, it’s a bit of a pain,” says Barry. “However, it’s important to do it, and the reason is that the plans (can) all change their parts and their benefits every year, and a lot of them do.

“In open enrollment, you have the chance to change from Original Medicare to Advantage plans and vice versa, from one Advantage plan to another, from one Part D plan to another,” adds Barry.

“It’s also there for people who didn’t sign up for direct coverage when they should have done it.”

Seniors seeking information on coverage — and live help over the phone — can turn to the Medicare Rights Center (medicarerights.org), suggests Margaret Murphy, associate director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a national nonprofit that assists seniors with getting comprehensive Medicare coverage.

“You can search for tips, like selecting a Part D plan or whether Medicare Advantage is right for you, that kind of thing,” she says. “They also have a hotline and can answer questions.”

There are plenty of offline resources that Medicare-eligible New Yorkers can turn to as well. By law, every state must operate a State Health Insurance Assistance Program, or SHIP.

The New York State Office for the Aging provides seniors SHIP resources through its Health Insurance Information, Counseling and Assistance (HIICAP) program.

“The HIICAP counselors are trained to review your options and use plan finders to identify the plan that best meets your needs and preferences,” Barry says.

She also recommends seniors call (800)-MEDICARE to have a customer representative cross-compare insurance plans on their behalf and mail them the results confidentially.

Medicare recipients looking to condense their coverage can enroll in a Medicare Advantage Plan, which bundles all the different parts of an Original Medicare health plan into one package.

“Not having to make those three separate decisions, as well as the potential of having better coordination among the different physicians that you see, are among the reasons that many seniors have turned to Medicare Advantage plans,” says Gail Wilensky, a health economist and former director of Medicare.

About a third of seniors currently enrolled in Medicare have opted for Advantage programs, Wilensky adds.

Seniors who need help making decisions regarding their Medicare coverage should also consider family, friends and organizations for the aging, as well as local churches and synagogues, as other resources at their disposal.

But whether you start your open enrollment process online or off, heath care experts all agree that seniors stand to benefit from shopping around.

“See what your options are,” Murphy says.

Source: http://www.nydailynews.com/