health care

Medicare deadline comes with an asterisk

Medicare open enrollment ends Dec. 7, but aspects of the sign-up period could extend into the new year for more than 300,000 people in Minnesota who are losing Medicare Cost plans.

The deadline details depend on whether consumers are replacing their Cost plans by reverting to original Medicare or buying a Medicare Advantage (MA) plan from a private insurer.

State officials say people leaving Cost plans can avoid surprise bills next year by enrolling in an MA plan with drug coverage or by supplementing original Medicare with a “Medigap” insurance policy plus a stand-alone Part D plan for prescriptions.

When it comes to Part D plans, Dec. 7 is the time for making a choice.

There’s a bit more flexibility when it comes to Medigap plans. People losing Cost plans have a right to buy a Medigap plan without answering questions about their health history through March 4. To have replacement coverage ready to go in January, the state said consumers going the Medigap route need to purchase the policy through an agent, broker or insurance company by midnight Dec. 31.

There’s even more flexibility when it comes to Medicare Advantage (MA), although the Dec. 7 deadline remains important for triggering later options.

If a Cost plan enrollee received their Part D benefits from their Cost plan, and they enter 2019 with enrollment in a Medicare Advantage plan, they can return to original Medicare in the new year and still use their guaranteed issue rights to a Medigap plan until March 4. These consumers also can purchase a stand-alone Part D plan until March 31.

This works like a safety net for Cost plan enrollees who are being automatically enrolled by their current insurer into a new MA plan. If they don’t like the coverage, they will have the chance early next year to get into original Medicare with supplementary coverage.

Separate from the Cost plan transition, Medicare beneficiaries who sign up for an Advantage plan by Dec. 7 will have the chance to switch to a different MA plan through a special enrollment period between Jan. 1 and March 31. This is a new option offered across the country by the federal government.

Christopher Snowbeck

AGRICULTURE

Place-of-origin labels suggested for produce

Federal investigators, for the first time, are recommending a fresh produce item be labeled with its place of origin after determining where the E. coli-tainted romaine lettuce likely came from that led to a recent outbreak.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is suggesting all romaine lettuce now bear harvest date and location information to help consumers and trace efforts when food-safety breaches do occur — and the industry agreed. The contaminated lettuce is believed to have come from California’s Central Coast region. It’s likely safe to eat romaine from other regions.

Creighton Magid, partner at Dorsey & Whitney, said the FDA announcement is the first to address the need for place-of-origin labeling for fresh produce. Without a serial code or place-of-origin label, outbreaks are more difficult to trace, resulting in massive recalls that blanket an entire food item.

“By encouraging place-of-origin labeling for romaine lettuce, the FDA is moving the entire produce industry toward labeling that will make outbreak response more effective and safety warnings to consumers more targeted,” Magid said in an e-mailed statement.

Still, the FDA’s advice for origin labeling doesn’t yet extend to other types of lettuce and fresh produce. And the exact source of the outbreak is still under investigation. The specific California counties that the FDA identified in the trace investigation are Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Ventura.

Kristen Painter

Affordable housing

Mpls., business community still at odds

The Minneapolis business community has failed to find common ground with the Minneapolis City Council, which plans at the Dec. 7 council meeting to pass an ordinance that would reserve at least 10 percent of all rental units for low-rent affordable housing.

Developers said last month that they would abandon projects as a result in a market that’s already slowing.

CEO Steve Cramer of the Downtown Council, a former head of a nonprofit housing and training agency and who’s leading the business response, said developers should not be the only ones funding affordable housing, and that there are better alternatives, including using the increased taxes from a development to fund affordable units. Also, business wants flexibility. For example, a developer of market-rate units could cover the commitment by collaborating with a nonprofit such as PPL or CommonBond on a stand-alone affordable project, which often incudes support services and training for low-income residents. Or market-rate developers could contribute directly to a city affordable housing fund.

Mayor Jacob Frey has committed a record $40 million to affordable housing projects in next year’s budget.

Neal St. Anthony