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Is new app from feds your answer to navigating Medicare coverage? Yes and no

Millennials, beware: Your grandparents are about to start calling you for help downloading the new Medicare smartphone app.

The iPhone and Android app, which launched Feb. 6, is called “What’s Covered,” and true to its name, it mostly answers one simple, yes-or-no question: Is this medical procedure covered by traditional Medicare?

Milt Roney, a 71-year-old retired government worker in a well-to-do suburb of Washington, D.C., agreed to check out the app with me, though he was skeptical.

“I wouldn’t use an app like that,” Roney said. “(My procedures are) going to be covered, and I’m not going to worry about it.”

Still, the app, available free from the Google Play and Apple App stores, is part of an initiative, called eMedicare, to put more tools and information about Medicare online.

But much like the website, it doesn’t delve into individual beneficiaries’ specifics. It doesn’t ask what other coverage they might have, so it can’t take into account supplementary insurance, deductibles, coinsurance or other factors that determine cost.

“While usable and good for general information, it doesn’t provide personalized information that might be more helpful in making treatment or access decisions,” said Casey Schwarz, senior counsel for the Medicare Rights Center, a nonprofit organization.

Roney’s wife, Lisa, 70, joined him at my urging to download the app and try it out.

A more fundamental problem is that many people of Medicare age don’t have a smartphone and aren’t familiar with apps or comfortable manipulating screens.

According to a report from AARP, 46 percent of people in their 60s do not have smartphones. Only 29 percent of the 70-and-older crowd do. The report suggests the trend will tick upward, with more older Americans owning mobile technology each year.

The Roneys both have Medicare Parts A and B, which cover hospitalizations and doctor visits. They both have smartphones.

They consider themselves pretty tech-savvy. They have iPads, personal computers and iPhones. Lisa Roney wears a Fitbit.

But they immediately questioned the necessity of the app.

“I’d just pick up the phone and call if I had a question about what was covered,” Milt Roney said.

“I’d probably just look it up in the (Medicare) book,” Lisa Roney said, pulling the 2-inch manual from a drawer in her office.

Then came the first hurdle: downloading the app.

Searching “Medicare” in the Google Play store, which is where Android users go, yielded many results. “What’s Covered” was first on the list, but it’s far from the only Medicare-related app on the platform. Same experience in the Apple app store, where it took the Roneys a few minutes to sort out exactly which one was the new tool. (It’s the one that says “Official Medicare coverage app,” made by the “Centers for Medicare &Medicaid Services.”)

Opening the app gave us a search bar to type in a product or service. There’s also an option to browse all items and services to see what is covered.

Lisa Roney typed in “dexa scan,” a test her doctor recommended she, like many women her age, undergo to check for osteoporosis.

It yielded no results. To find it, Lisa had to browse through the list of covered procedures and go to “bone mass measurements.” There, she found out that Part B covers such tests once every two years, but nowhere in the information did the word “dexa scan” — the term her doctor used — appear.

In the time it took her to go through these steps, her husband, Milt, got fed up and just Googled it. He found the answer immediately.

Based on online reviews, such problems with search specificity may be common.

Ultimately, the app is just another way for beneficiaries, their families and providers to find the same information available on the website and printed in the old-fashioned paper manual they receive by mail.

There is also no information about how to choose a prescription drug plan, or other supplemental insurance like Medicare Advantage or Medigap plans, which are the real and complicated decisions beneficiaries must contend with. But those decisions require more personal information, which the app can’t support right now.

The Roneys were unimpressed.

“I’m probably going to delete it right after you leave,” Lisa Roney concluded.

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