UPDATE (2/9/2023): This story has been updated to include some information about 2023 Medicare Advantage plans.
Over the last couple of years, a number of online ads have promoted a “free $2,880 Medicare flex card” to Medicare recipients. The ads say these cards act like debit cards that people can use to pay for both medical expenses and food. The websites these ads link to dominate the results of a Google search for “Medicare flex card.”
Multiple viewers asked VERIFY if the ads were trustworthy.
Can Medicare recipients receive a free Medicare flex card?
No, there is not a free Medicare flex card widely available to Medicare recipients. Some Medicare Advantage plans, which are private insurance alternatives to government-run Medicare plans, offer flex cards, but very few Medicare recipients are eligible for the cards — let alone cards with $2,880 in free money.
WHAT WE FOUND
Medicare is available for people age 65 or older, younger people with disabilities and people with End Stage Renal Disease. Medicare Advantage plans are plans offered by private insurers as opposed to the federally run original Medicare.
There are many different Medicare Advantage plans that offer different benefits based on cost and a person’s needs. While some are offering “flex cards,” their cards are nowhere near as valuable as a $2,880 card and they aren’t free — you often have to pay an additional premium for Medicare Advantage plans.
In May 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released updated guidance to Medicare Advantage organizations. It permitted Medicare Advantage organizations to add a “debit card reimbursement mechanism” for primarily health-related needs as a benefit.
The guidance said a debit card could be used for things not primarily related to health, such as food, as “special supplemental benefits for the chronically ill (SSBCI).” Such a benefit is only available to Medicare recipients who meet the definition of “chronically ill enrollee.”
A CMS spokesperson explained these cards can be used to pay for medical coverage not otherwise paid for directly by the insurer.
“There may be an additional charge for these benefits and plans can change their coverage offerings every year,” the CMS spokesperson said of Medicare Advantage plans offering flex cards. “Consumers are encouraged to regularly review the benefits offered to make sure their Medicare Advantage plan continues to meet their needs.”
Anthem, Aetna and Humana all announced they would offer new Medicare Advantage plans in 2022 that include these “flex cards.” But the cards they advertise provide far less money and are only available in a few locations. The Anthem plan gives members up to $500 on a flex card, the most of any of the three organizations, to use on dental, vision, and hearing. The Aetna card will only be available on select plans in Minnesota and Pennsylvania. The Humana card will only be offered on some Florida plans.
Many insurers expanded the role of flex cards in their Medicare Advantage plans for 2023. Humana, Aetna and Anthem now all have dedicated information pages for their flex cards, and Humana says the annual allowance on their card can be anywhere from $420 to $3,300. You can check the cards' availability to you through the insurers' websites.
California Health Advocates, a Medicare advocacy organization based in California, recommends people contact their local state health insurance assistance program “to get unbiased information and secure enrollment assistance.”
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