Medicare For Dummies
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Although Medicare covers a multitude of medical services, it also has some yawning gaps. Some may surprise you, so the following sections address the broad areas that Medicare doesn’t normally cover, together with some tips for alternative ways of filling in the gaps. Being aware of them from the start is better than being disappointed if Medicare denies coverage after the fact.

Medicare coverage © macgyverhh /

Routine hearing, vision, dental, and foot care

The older you get, the more you’re likely to need professional attention for your ears, eyes, teeth, and feet. But Medicare doesn’t cover routine services to take care of these parts. Routine is the key word here. Medicare pays to treat problems it considers medically necessary (including cataract surgery, jaw restoration after injury, and treatment for diseases of the ear) but not the kind of care you may need on a regular basis, such as the following:
  • Ear exams, hearing aids, or having hearing aids fitted
  • Vision tests, eyeglasses, or contact lenses
  • Oral exams, teeth cleaning, extractions, or dentures
  • Toenail clipping or the removal of corns and calluses

However, routine services for ears, eyes, and teeth may be covered if you’re enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan that provides them as extra benefits. Some plans offer them as separate benefit packages for an additional premium. Not all plans offer coverage for this routine care, but those that do are identified in the plan finder program on Medicare’s website with small logos: D for dental, V for vision, and H for hearing.

Of course, as always in Medicare, some exceptions exist. You can get coverage for foot care in certain circumstances — for example, if you have foot problems caused by conditions such as diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, chronic kidney disease, malnutrition, or inflammation of the veins related to blood clots — especially if the act of toenail clipping would be hazardous to your health unless done by a professional. But the bottom line is that to get Medicare coverage for foot care, you need your doctor or podiatrist to provide evidence that said care is medically necessary.

Home safety items

Medicare spends billions of dollars a year on treating the results of falls, and older Americans are five times more likely to end up in the hospital for falls than for any other injuries. So, you’d think that Medicare would try to save at least some of those billions by covering safety items that help prevent people from falling. But no, it doesn’t.

To be sure, Medicare covers a few items it deems medically reasonable if prescribed by a doctor — for example, seat lifts that help incapacitated people sit down or get up from a chair, or trapeze bars that help people sit up or alter positions when confined to bed. But Medicare doesn’t pay for equipment it considers items of convenience rather than of medical necessity. A long list of non-covered items includes stair lifts or elevators, bathtub lifts or seats, grab bars, room heaters, air conditioners, humidifiers, posture chairs, massage devices, physical fitness equipment, and medical emergency alert systems.

But you may be able to get help in other ways:

  • If you’re a veteran with disabilities, be aware that the Department of Veterans Affairs has little-known programs that provide cash grants to help eligible vets make safety improvements in their homes. Call the VA at 877-827-3702, email [email protected].
  • If your income is limited, contact the nonprofit organization Rebuilding Together, which provides volunteers to make housing repairs and install safety equipment free of charge. Call 800-473-4229 for local information.
  • If you file itemized tax returns, you may be able to deduct the costs of home improvements for medical reasons.

Nursing home care

Many people are surprised, and often alarmed, to discover that Medicare doesn’t cover long-term care in nursing homes. I’m not talking here about short-term stays in a skilled nursing facility (most of which are nursing homes) after leaving the hospital; Medicare does cover those stays in specific circumstances.

But what if you become too sick or incapacitated to live at home and need the constant long-term care that a nursing home provides? Medicare will continue to cover your medical needs, but it won’t pay for what it calls custodial care, which refers to help with the activities of daily life such as using the bathroom, dressing, and so on. Nor will Medicare pay for your room and meals in a nursing home. These same rules apply to assisted living facilities.

Most people living in nursing homes pay for their custodial care out-of-pocket — with the help of long-term-care insurance, if they’ve purchased it — until their resources run dry. At that point, they usually become eligible for Medicaid, the state-run health-care system for people with very limited incomes and resources, which does pay the custodial care bills of people who qualify. (Because of the similarity in names, many people confuse Medicare and Medicaid, especially when it comes to thinking about long-term care.)

Eligibility rules for Medicaid vary from state to state. (And the name of the program is different in some states — for example, MediCal in California, MassHealth in Massachusetts, and TennCare in Tennessee.) To find out how the rules apply to you or a family member, you may need to consult an informed counselor or a qualified elder care attorney.

For contact information of people who can help, check out the official document “Your Guide to Choosing a Nursing Home or Other Long-Term Services and Supports.” You can also visit Medicare's nursing home comparison information.

Medical services abroad

Medicare doesn’t pay for medical services outside of the United States and its territories except in these extremely rare circumstances:
  • You’re traveling between Alaska and another state and have a medical emergency that means you must be treated in Canada.
  • A medical emergency occurs while you’re in the United States or its territories, but the nearest hospital is in a foreign country — for example, across the border in Canada or Mexico.
  • You live within the United States or its territories and need hospital care (regardless of whether it’s an emergency), but your nearest hospital is in a foreign country.
Some Medigap supplemental insurance policies (those labeled C, D, F, G, M, or N) cover emergency or urgently needed treatment abroad. In this situation, you pay a $250 deductible and 20 percent of the cost of the medical services you use up to a lifetime maximum of $50,000. Some Medicare Advantage plans also cover emergencies abroad, and so do some employer benefits and TRICARE military benefits. But otherwise, you need to buy travel insurance that includes medical emergencies when planning journeys abroad.

What if you live abroad? Medical treatment in other countries is almost always less expensive than in the United States, so paying out-of-pocket may not bankrupt you. And in some circumstances, you may be taken care of by the national health program of the country you’re living in. But buying health insurance on the open market may be difficult or very expensive. One option is to join a nonprofit organization called the Association of Americans Resident Overseas, which has long lobbied Congress to make Medicare available abroad. AARO offers its members access to a variety of private health insurance plans that can be used in many countries.

Services that may be nice but aren’t necessary

You probably aren’t surprised to know that you can’t get a face-lift or a tummy tuck at taxpayers’ expense. Surgery solely for cosmetic purposes is one of the absolute no-no’s of Medicare coverage. (Medicare does cover bariatric surgery to reduce the size of the stomach in very obese people, but this procedure is to lessen their risk of serious health disorders and not to improve their looks.)

Acupuncture and other alternative medical practices are barred under traditional Medicare. Physical fitness classes and gym memberships are also excluded. But some of these services (notably gym memberships) are covered as extras in some Medicare Advantage plans.

Even something as relatively mainstream as chiropractic care may be excluded from Medicare coverage in many circumstances. Chiropractors help lessen the pain of spine and joint problems, most often by the manipulation of bones. Medicare covers manipulative treatment from a licensed chiropractic physician when you’re injured or in pain because of a problem with the spine, provided that the treatment is clearly improving your condition. But Medicare doesn’t pay for the manipulation of other joints (such as shoulders and knees) or for other types of chiropractic care such as massage or traction. And it doesn’t pay for maintenance care to keep you stable if you aren’t demonstrably improving.

Finally, in the hospital, Medicare doesn’t cover a private room (unless sharing one would be medically inadvisable), private nursing, or conveniences like a telephone or television if these items are billed separately.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Patricia Barry is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin and a recognized expert on the Medicare Part D prescription drug program. During a long career in journalism, she has authored thousands of articles and two guidebooks on healthcare and social policy. Since 1999, she has specialized in writing about Medicare and prescription drugs.

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