Emergency centers treat three million patients for fall-related injuries each year. Therefore, seniors continue to recognize the value of Medical Alert Systems, with more than half of U.S. adults reporting using them.
Since adults over 65 in the U.S. enjoy health coverage through Medicare, many wonder whether their insurance covers medical alert systems. While Original Medicare (parts A and B) do not cover medical alert devices, you may still achieve coverage through select Medicare Advantage plans.
What Are Medical Alert Devices and How Do They Work?
Medical alert devices can provide emergency support to individuals in their homes or on their person. These personal emergency response systems consist of an at-home or on-the-go device and monitoring service. Once activated, a monitored system will contact the company’s dedicated call center in an emergency. In contrast, unmonitored systems call 911.
While Medicare does not always cover systems like Life Alert, they are commonly used by Medicare-eligible seniors and their caregivers. Recent reports suggest that 64% of adults in the U.S. consider medical alert devices a helpful medical tool, and 86% have been saved at least once from a potentially devastating incident by a medical alert device.
Medical alert systems are available in an array of types to fit the unique needs of each user. Options include both at-home systems and wearable devices and technology-integrated personal emergency response systems.
Does Medicare Cover Medical Alert Systems?
Though Original Medicare does not cover medical alert systems, some Medicare Advantage (Part C) plans may provide coverage. Medicare Advantage offers benefits like hearing, vision, and dental care that are not included in Medicare Part A or B.
Individuals can purchase a Medicare Advantage plan through private insurance companies that offer coverage in their location. Beneficiaries must be enrolled in Original Medicare to qualify for an Advantage plan. Providers vary in the coverage they offer, especially as it pertains to medical alert devices. Beneficiaries should contact their individual Part C provider for details.
While Medicare Advantage offers additional benefits not included in Original Medicare, it does not guarantee coverage of medical alert devices. However, in some states, Medicaid, or state-sponsored healthcare for low-income individuals, may offer discounts and savings toward life alert devices not covered by Medicare.
Types of Available Medical Alert Devices
Medical alert devices today can be stationed at home, worn on your body, and even fully incorporated into smartphone technology. Medical alert companies also commonly offer cross-compatible devices for those who prefer a combination of multiple types.
Individuals can choose from various wearable devices, from simple pendants and bracelets to more sophisticated smartwatch technology. Medical alert companies traditionally offer wearable buttons worn on lanyards around the user’s neck or wrist for easy access in an emergency. Pressing the button alerts a call center operator or first responders.
Wearable devices may also include integrated healthcare technology. Wearing your own emergency response system can help track your location using GPS technology. Some software can even detect changes to your vital signs before an emergency occurs.
Each type of wearable device comes with its own pros and cons. Some users may prefer the simplicity of calling for help at the touch of a button, while others may seek a more integrated monitoring system. Others still may view this type of technology as unreliable or unaffordable, as more sophisticated smart devices tend to cost more than conventional ones.
Buttons Around the Home
Some users prefer special alert buttons strategically placed around the home instead of wearable devices. Wall-mounted buttons are especially ideal for users who have trouble operating a wearable device or using technology or struggle with memory or mobility.
Buttons can be installed as part of an in-home medical alert system in the most frequented rooms in the house. They are easily visible and accessible in an emergency, always located in the same spot in case a user forgets to put on their wearable device. This option is ideal for users needing assistance in an emergency inside their homes.
Smart Home Devices
Many smart home devices like Alexa now incorporate personal emergency response system options. These systems offer 24/7 emergency services through the use of voice commands. They must remain charged or plugged into a power source and connected to wifi at all times.
Smart home devices, including medical alert systems, commonly offer perks like video monitoring, automatic fall detection, and family video conferencing options in an emergency. While some users prefer full technology integration at home, others may lack the expertise to operate this device or the funds to pay the more expensive monthly fees.
Cell Phone Integrations
Some companies offer cell phone-integrated medical alert devices. These systems look and function like a typical cell phone but also feature large buttons that can directly summon emergency services or contact an operator at that company’s emergency call center.
In some cases that require minimal monitoring, users can add medical alerts to their existing cell phones or tablets, which is ideal for seniors seeking to maintain their independence with a discreet help button for emergencies. Companies tend to offer this technology at relatively affordable rates.
Key Features to Consider When Choosing a Medical Alert Device
Individuals considering a medical alert system have many factors to consider, from type and function to whether Medicare covers their Life Alert. The following key points are critical to choosing a medical alert device tailored to your needs.
Monitored vs. Unmonitored Systems
When activated, monitored personal emergency response systems immediately contact an operator at the medical alert monitoring center run by the device company. The operator sends emergency services on behalf of the customer if they cannot speak. Ideal for customers who require maximum observation, these systems require a monthly fee.
Unmonitored systems bypass the monitoring center and go straight through to 911 or an emergency contact person designated by the customer. This type of system may suit an individual who requires minimal monitoring and tends to be less pricey without a monthly fee.
Landline vs. Mobile and GPS Systems
Medical alert devices hooked up to a landline use a loud, powerful speakerphone to make contact with the user in an emergency. While the system is designed to be accessible throughout the entire home, users must be able to hear and speak to the dispatcher to get help. Alternatively, mobile systems incorporating GPS enable dispatchers to locate a customer and send help without requiring verbal confirmation.
Sensors for Fall Detection
Some medical alert companies offer automatic fall detection, which uses sensors to alert operators to any sudden or unusual changes in a customer’s speed and orientation, typically for an extra fee. While sensors cannot prevent falls, they can trigger the fastest possible emergency response for users who may be incapacitated.
Selecting a medical alert system with multilingual capabilities is especially important for non-English or non-native English users. While some devices may be limited to only English or a few foreign languages commonly spoken in the U.S., systems with adaptable language capabilities offer the most effective communication in an emergency.
How Much Do Medical Alert Devices Cost?
Determining the cost of a medical alert system depends on multiple variables. Common factors include which type of device you prefer, whether you want a monitored or unmonitored system, and your available budget for subscription and activation fees.
At-Home or Mobile Medical Alert Costs
Individuals may have different medical monitoring needs depending on their age, condition, and living environment. Naturally, users can expect to pay more for a medical alert device that provides on-the-go protection than an at-home system that stays in one place. Such devices typically require monthly fees of roughly $20-$30 or $29-$45 for 24/7 at-home or on-the-go monitoring, respectively.
Monitored Vs. Unmonitored Service Costs
While many users choose to use 24/7 monitoring for the most comprehensive coverage in case of a fall or other emergency, not all customers require it. Once a customer pays for their device’s installation and activation fees, they can eliminate recurring monthly fees by choosing an unmonitored system. Unmonitored devices alert 911 or designated family members instead of the company call center in an emergency.
Required and Optional Fees
Medical alert companies may charge one-time installation and/or activation fees, typically ranging from $25-$100. Some companies charge one or both of these fees upfront, while others may minimize them as part of a package deal or forego them altogether.
Medical alert systems also typically include fees to rent or purchase equipment. Customers who rent their at-home device can usually add a minimal rental fee to their monthly costs. Many companies require customers to purchase on-the-go equipment, with fees between $50 and $350.
Add-On Features and Services
Optional add-ons to a medical alert system include fall detection, extra help buttons that can be mounted around your house, and even virtual visits with a physician. Companies typically offer extra features like automatic fall detection for an additional monthly fee of $5-$10, while perks like wall-mounted help buttons can accrue a one-time fee of $35-$40 each.
How to Save Money On Medical Alert Systems
Since systems like Life Alert are not guaranteed to be covered by Medicare Advantage, customers can pursue other discounts and savings on medical alert systems outside of Medicare.
Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRA)
Individuals seeking an affordable medical alert device might consider a health reimbursement arrangement (HRAs), an employer-funded health plan that reimburses beneficiaries for qualifying expenses. Reimbursements are tax-free and unused funds can roll over to the following year on the same plan. HRAs may also help beneficiaries lower their out-of-pocket costs by reimbursing premium payments.
Workers must enroll in Original Medicare and/or Part C to qualify for group or individual HRAs through their employer. Devices, including Life Alert systems, are covered by Medicare as a reimbursable HRA expense. HRAs can work with Medicare to cover benefits, including personal emergency response systems for those who enroll.
Other similar options include health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts, both of which also reimburse Medicare beneficiaries for medical alert devices.
While they do not endorse specific name brands, some organizations, such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), may partner with medical alert companies to offer discounts to their members since this is a target demographic for Life Alert devices. Agencies like TRICARE may also offer Life Alert discounts for active-duty military personnel and veterans.
Product Promotions and Sales
Some medical alert companies offer sales and promotions throughout the year, allowing you to save money if you purchase at the right time. Options might include free months of monitoring, free add-ons like fall detection, free shipping, equipment, or installation. Seniors might see more promotional offers around major holidays, such as Mother’s Day, Independence Day, and Christmas, when companies hope to attract customers to buy one for themselves or a loved one.