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Medicare Advantage is an all-in-one alternative to Original Medicare that includes all the benefits of Original Medicare and often a few extras, such as dental and vision coverage. Medicare Advantage plans are offered by private insurers, and plan availability depends on location.
Medicare Advantage plans are a popular option for people who are eligible for Medicare: In 2021, about 4 in 10 Medicare-eligible people are in a Medicare Advantage plan. But each plan has different strengths and weaknesses. Here’s a rundown of the top Medicare Advantage plans in 2021.
Best for size of network: UnitedHealthcare
Average Medicare star rating: 3.9 out of 5.
Service area: Available in 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Standout feature: UnitedHealthcare offers the largest Medicare Advantage network of all companies, with more than 850,000 network care providers.
UnitedHealthcare is the largest provider of Medicare Advantage plans and offers plans in two-thirds of U.S. counties. UnitedHealthcare also partners with AARP, insuring the Medicare products that carry the AARP name. Many of UHC’s members are in highly rated plans, although member satisfaction ratings are lower than those of several other providers.
Three-quarters of UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage members who are in contracts with Medicare star ratings are in contracts rated 4 stars or higher.
UHC offers members the chance to work with expert advocates if they have care questions, as well as care coordinators for complex health issues.
Despite being a big player in the industry, UnitedHealthcare’s scores in J.D. Power's recent 2021 Medicare Advantage Study, which measured member satisfaction, were lower than the industry average. UHC ranked seventh out of nine providers measured.
Best for extra perks: Aetna
Average Medicare star rating: 3.7 out of 5.
Service area: Available in 46 states and Washington, D.C.
Standout feature: In addition to dental, vision and hearing coverage, Aetna Medicare members have access to a variety of other benefits, such as in-home health visits and meal delivery after a hospital stay.
Aetna is the fourth-largest provider of Medicare Advantage plans, and Aetna is a CVS Health company. Most of Aetna’s plans provide dental, vision and hearing coverage, and many offer other extras. Some valuable Aetna benefits include companionship benefits in six states, a Home Heart Care program to help members with congestive heart failure monitor their condition at home, and concierge services to help members find local resources and activities.
Aetna estimates that 4 out of 5 Medicare-eligible beneficiaries in the U.S. will have access to a $0-premium Aetna Medicare Advantage plan.
Aetna offers the lowest-premium stand-alone Medicare prescription drug plan nationwide.
As a CVS Health company, Aetna offers members the ability to visit one of a network of walk-in clinics or MinuteClinics for the same copay as a regular visit to a primary care physician, or PCP, as long they’re in plans that don’t require a PCP visit. This network includes walk-in locations across 33 states and Washington, D.C.
Aetna Medicare Advantage plans get an average Medicare star rating of 3.7 out of 5 stars, with not a single plan earning 5 stars.
Out of nine Medicare Advantage providers ranked, Aetna placed sixth overall in J.D. Power’s most recent Medicare Advantage Study.
Aetna offers only health maintenance organization or preferred provider organization plans (also known as HMOs and PPOs), along with Special Needs Plans. Members don’t have the option of private fee-for-service or medical savings account plans.
Best for member satisfaction: Kaiser
Average Medicare star rating: 4.9 out of 5.
Service area: Available in eight states and Washington, D.C.
Standout feature: Kaiser stands head-and-shoulders above other providers in terms of the company’s Medicare star ratings, and the company tops a list of nine providers for member satisfaction.
Kaiser Permanente is the fifth-largest provider of Medicare Advantage plans, with 1.7 million members enrolled in 2021. Kaiser is also the largest not-for-profit health maintenance organization in the U.S., and the company uses an integrated care model, which means members can get all their care in one place and all their providers are connected. Kaiser plans are available in only eight states and Washington, D.C.
Kaiser Permanente earned 846 points out of 1,000 in J.D. Power’s latest U.S. Medicare Advantage Study, netting it the top spot for customer satisfaction out of nine providers measured.
Only four Medicare health plans received a 5 out of 5 rating from the National Committee for Quality Assurance, and three of them are Kaiser Permanente plans.
Kaiser Permanente plans are available only in eight states and Washington, D.C., so the majority of U.S. adults can’t access them. (Kaiser sells plans in California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon, Virginia and Washington state.)
Kaiser offers only HMO plans, so members must work within Kaiser’s network of medical providers.
Best for low-cost plan availability: Humana
Average Medicare star rating: 3.7 out of 5.
Service area: Available in 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
Standout feature: Humana offers $0-premium plans in 47 states, and the company estimates that 6 out of 10 members are in a $0-premium plan in 2021.
Humana is the second-largest provider of Medicare Advantage plans, and in addition to being the most widely available, the company offers $0-premium plans in nearly every U.S. state. Although the company’s average Medicare star rating is sub-4, the vast majority of the plan’s members are in highly rated plans.
Humana offers plans in 84% of U.S. counties, making it an option for more Americans than any other provider.
More than 9 out of 10 existing Humana Medicare Advantage members (93%) are in a plan rated 4 stars or higher (out of 5) by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, or CMS.
Humana plans offer access to the Humana Pharmacy mail delivery service, which tops the list in customer satisfaction for the fourth year in a row, according to J.D. Power.
Humana comes in only slightly above the industry average in J.D. Power’s 2021 Medicare Advantage Study, and a number of plans were ranked 3 or below (out of 5) by the National Committee for Quality Assurance.
Humana’s Special Needs Plans aren’t as plentiful as the rest of its plans. The company's Dual-Eligible SNPs are available in about half of U.S. states (26), and its Chronic Condition SNPs are available in only 12 states.
Best of the Blues: Highmark
Average Medicare star rating: 4.0 out of 5.
Service area: Available in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Standout feature: Highmark gets solid Medicare star ratings from the CMS and high customer satisfaction scores from J.D. Power.
Highmark is a member of the Blue Cross Blue Shield family, which includes 35 independent companies that together form the third-largest provider of Medicare Advantage plans. As far as Blue companies go, Highmark’s plans are highly rated and ranked for member satisfaction.
Of nine Medicare Advantage providers (including three Blue Cross Blue Shield companies), Highmark ranks second in J.D. Power’s 2021 U.S. Medicare Advantage Study, scoring 834 out of 1,000 points. It’s also the highest Blue on the list.
Highmark’s Medicare Advantage contracts get an average Medicare star rating of 4 from the CMS.
Highmark offers Medicare Advantage plans in only two states: Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Highmark Medicare Advantage offers only HMO and PPO plans. There are no Special Needs plans for people with certain diseases or chronic conditions.
How to shop for Medicare Advantage plans
The right Medicare Advantage plan for you will depend on your health history, prescription medications and where you live, among other things. Here are some strategies for selecting the best plan:
Check star ratings. The CMS collects data on Medicare Advantage plans from member surveys, the plans themselves and medical providers, and then assigns a star rating based on the results. The star rating is on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being best.
Compare out-of-pocket costs. Each plan will have a monthly premium (many Medicare Advantage plans have no premium) and a maximum out-of-pocket cost, which is the most you’ll pay in a year for covered health care.
Keep your meds in mind. Your medications may seem like an afterthought, but make sure you investigate how each plan will cover your medications — or whether they’re covered at all.
Look for your doctors. If you’ve got a list of caregivers and medical facilities you use and prefer, look for plans that include them.
Consider the plan type. If you see specialists frequently and you don’t want to seek a referral for every office visit, a PPO plan is probably the better fit. If you’re a light health care user and see mostly your primary care physician, an HMO might be more affordable.
You can sign up for a Medicare Advantage plan when you first become eligible for Medicare (your initial enrollment period) or during designated annual Medicare enrollment periods.
For information on the Medicare Advantage plans near you, use Medicare’s plan finder to see what’s available.