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Tips for planning for Medicare costs: A conversation with Aetna’s Frankie Satterfield-Vaughn

By Mark Pabst

As Director of Strategic Accounts for Aetna, Frankie Satterfield-Vaughn has to know Medicare inside and out. But her expertise goes well beyond familiarity with its rules and regulations.

She also knows how to translate the rules into strategies that help people get the most out of their Medicare coverage — while sticking to a budget that fits their lifestyle. She honed her skills helping people understand the costs of Medicare during her decade as a nursing home administrator. That's when she discovered her passion for helping mature adults . She chalks it up to loving their wisdom, experience and passion for life.

While working directly with her nursing home clients and their families, Satterfield-Vaughn quickly learned that providing the best care often meant helping people navigate their insurance coverage. A big part of her job was helping people find the best Medicare options for their needs.

“More than 20 years ago, I discovered I had a knack for helping people find the right Medicare coverage,” Satterfield-Vaughn says. “And in one way or another I’ve been doing it ever since.”

But Satterfield-Vaughn is quick to point out that selecting the right Medicare coverage means going with a plan that fits your entire lifestyle, not just your health care needs. So you’ll want coverage that also takes into account your budget and your long-term goals. After all, being prepared for the costs associated with Medicare coverage is a key element of enjoying your golden years.

Satterfield-Vaughn sat down with Chris Hoff, who will soon be eligible for Medicare benefits, near her office in Cary, North Carolina. Hoff is director of sales for the Mid-South region at Aetna – and while he is planning to continue working for a few more years, he’s also looking forward to his retirement. In fact, he plans to spend more time with his eight grandchildren and ramp up the mission work he does with his church. But he knows that making the most out of his retirement means being smart about both his finances and his health. That’s why he spoke with Satterfield-Vaughn to get some tips about how to handle the costs associated with Medicare coverage.  

Here are some highlights from their conversation.

Chris Hoff: In general, what are the biggest factors affecting how much I will pay for my Medicare coverage?

Satterfield-Vaughn: Really, the biggest factors are the type of coverage and plan you choose. But there are also other factors affecting Medicare costs that can be significant.

For example, if you don’t have group coverage like the kind you might get through your employer or through a union, you should sign up for Parts A and B of Medicare as soon as you are eligible. Part A provides coverage for things like inpatient hospital stays.  Part B provides coverage for things like doctor visits. You should choose a Part D plan, too. It provides prescription drug coverage. If you wait to sign up for Part B or Part D and you don’t have another form of coverage, you may end up paying a penalty.

To learn more about Part B and Part D penalties, see our article about when you should sign up for Medicare.

If you are interested in learning more about how your income can affect your Medicare Part B premium, has a helpful chart.

Hoff: What happens when I’m not working anymore and on a fixed income? I’m concerned Medicare could still stretch my budget. How can I make sure I can afford my Medicare coverage?

Satterfield-Vaughn: You should check to see if you qualify for help paying for your Medicare benefits. There are several different programs that can help pay for some of the costs if you qualify based on your income and your assets. Some of these low-income benefits can help you pay your premiums. There are other benefits that can help you with the costs of your prescription drugs.

To learn more about programs that can help pay for Medicare, see our article about Medicare financial assistance.

Selecting the right Medicare coverage means going with a plan that fits your entire lifestyle, not just your health care needs.

Hoff: What if I’m pretty healthy right now? Can’t I save some money by just going without Medicare coverage for a while?

Satterfield-Vaughn: Well, like I mentioned earlier, if you don’t have other group coverage, the longer you wait to enroll in Medicare Part B and Part D, the more you could pay. It’s a penalty you may be charged for enrolling late.

But even if you aren’t subject to a penalty, it's still a good idea to enroll instead of trying to go without coverage. You should also check to see if there are Medicare Advantage plans available where you live . You’ll still have to pay the Part B premium. But you’ll get protection against any unexpected health problems because the plans come with a limit on the amount you pay in a year for covered medical expenses.

To learn more about Medicare Advantage plans, see our article about Medicare Advantage.

Hoff: It’s good to remember that there could be penalties for enrolling late. And helpful to know that Medicare Advantage plans may be an option. But how can I handle things like copays that can add up if I’m seeing a doctor a lot?

Satterfield-Vaughn: If you opt for Original Medicare, you could think about getting a Medicare Supplement plan to help with some of these costs. You’ll pay a monthly premium for your plan, but you’ll get help paying for things like copays. The premium might seem expensive, but if you use a lot of services, like frequent doctor visits or regular medical procedures, you could save money by adding a Medicare Supplement plan to your Original Medicare coverage.

It’s important to keep in mind that you can’t have a Medicare Supplement plan and a Medicare Advantage plan at the same time. You’ll have to choose one or the other. When people ask me how to make the decision, I always say, “Do the math.” My golden rule? Make sure the cost of the premium fits in your budget.

To learn more about Medicare Supplement plans, see our article about Original Medicare and Medicare Supplement plans.

To learn more about how to enroll in Medicare, see our article about Medicare enrollment periods.

Hoff: That’s a great tip. Any other strategies for not busting my budget?

Satterfield-Vaughn: If you have a Part D plan or a Medicare Advantage plan that includes prescription drug coverage, check the details of your plan so you know which pharmacies are in your network. Some plans even offer preferred pharmacies that may offer you lower prices on your prescription drugs. These are the things that can make a real difference in your health care budget.

Perhaps most importantly, don’t just think about what you might spend on health care. Think about your total budget. It’s not like health exists in a vacuum. Your health is also about what happens to you outside the clinic or the hospital. Do a benefits check once a year by going to to see what type of local or federal programs you qualify for. Maybe you qualify for help paying your heat or electricity. Maybe you qualify for help with the cost of food. These things are just as important to your health as a visit to a doctor.

Hoff: Good point. It’s so true that our health is impacted by a broad range of factors.

Satterfield-Vaughn: Yes. Never stop thinking about your whole health. And keep in mind that you can also learn more about the types of help you qualify for by contacting your insurance provider. Some representatives even have special training to help you find services that go beyond what you might think of as health care. For example, we have representatives look at the whole you and can hook you up with resources to help you find everything from the best nursing homes in your area to the best air conditioning repair man. After all, your goals aren’t just about your health, your goals should be about your life.

About the author

Mark Pabst has worked as a writer and researcher in the health care field for almost two decades. When not writing about health he tries to stay healthy through activities like hiking, climbing and paddling in the far flung corners of his native state of California. However, despite his best efforts he still has a few unhealthy habits he can’t shake, most notably a weakness for jelly donuts.

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