On Sunday, the Star Tribune published a story detailing how Medicare shoppers are finding more health plan options for 2019 that limit the network of doctors, hospitals and clinics.

These network limits could be a problem if consumers find their preferred health care providers are not in-network, because they might have to pay significantly more out-of-pocket to continue visiting their regular physician.

After the story, a reader wrote in concerned that seniors will only realize what's happened early next year, when open enrollment is over. It's an important concern -- and, thankfully, there's a safety net.

New this year, the federal government is allowing Medicare Advantage enrollees the chance to change MA plans or return to original Medicare and get a Part D drug plan between Jan. 1 and March 1.

"It's like a free look," said Joshua Haberman, the owner of Alexander & Haberman insurance agency, which is based in Bloomington. "If you thought you had your doctors, and it turns out you didn't, you'll have an opportunity to make a chance one time in the early new year. This is a really important safety valve."

Kelli Jo Greiner, health policy analyst with the Minnesota Board on Aging, said the extra enrollment period is new for 2019 and isn't related to the elimination of Medicare Cost plans across 66 counties in Minnesota next year. The Cost Plan change is the big news that's prompting more than 300,000 people in the state to shop for new health plans next year.

Greiner said the extra enrollment period will not let consumers enroll in a Medigap supplement without undergoing health screening, meaning they still will face questions that could block them from Medigap coverage. Those who are losing their Cost plans have a "guaranteed issue" right to many Medigap policies, but only during a limited time period.

Find more details here about the various deadlines and enrollment periods at this link on Minnesota Department of Commerce website.

The extra Medicare Advantage enrollment period runs from Jan. 1 to March 31 and Commerce describes it this way: "Any senior with a Medicare Advantage plan can switch to a different Medicare Advantage plan; drop their Medicare Advantage plan and return to Original Medicare; sign up for a stand-alone Part D prescription drug plan (if returning to Original Medicare); or drop their stand-alone Part D plan."

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