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Blue Cross and Blue Shield started out as separate companies. The former started out in 1929 as the American Hospital Association, taking on the Blue Cross symbol in 1939. By 1960, the Blue Cross Association had overtaken the AHA, and in 1972 the two companies went their separate ways.
Blue Shield has its roots in the Pacific Northwest, where it wrote policies in mining and logging camps, although the company established its first official plan in California in 1939. The company took on the Blue Shield symbol in 1948, but didn’t start using that name for several more years.
The two companies were each chosen by the U.S. government in the early days of Medicare to administer plans across the country. They didn’t merge, however, until 1982, becoming the major health care company that we know today. BCBS is an association that licenses its brand to health insurance providers across the country. As a result, BCBS plans can vary greatly from state to state.
Among the companies under the BCBS banner are Highmark, Wellmark, and Anthem. In some cases, more than one BCBS company may exist in a single state, such as Idaho which has BlueCross of Idaho and Regence BlueShield of Idaho, two companies that are in competition with each other despite both holding the BCBS name.
BCBS’s connection with Medicare has continued through to today. While plan offerings differ greatly from state to state, the company remains a major force in the market. Although the different companies under one banner may seem confusing, it’s not that dissimilar from other health insurance companies that also offer varying levels of coverage in different states.
The main thing to remember is that each BCBS administers its plans individually. There is one central website from which you can find out what plans are available in your area, and be directed to the appropriate BCBS company.
BCBS Medicare Plans
BCBS companies offer a full range of Medicare options across the country, with plans differing from state to state; this is mainly because of the many different companies selling insurance under the Blue Cross Blue Shield name. The plans include Medicare Advantage, Medicare Supplement, and Part D Prescription coverage.
BCBS companies offer Medicare Advantage plans across the country, with a range of different options. There are both PPO and HMO plans; some states offer both options while others may have only one or the other available.
The BCBS website offers an easy chart that allows consumers to see which type of Medicare Advantage plan is available in their state of residence. The chart also provides the plan names and the name of the local BCBS company administering the plans.
Due to the differences across companies and states, there are a large number of different plan names, making it difficult to create a comprehensive look at the options available for the purposes of this review. As a result, we’ll take a look at the options available for California to provide a sampling of the plans. It’s important that every consumer look specifically at the plans offered in your own home state to gain a clear picture of what is available to you.
In California there are two BCBS companies – Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of California. The former offers the most plans, with one PPO plan and four HMO plans. The latter offers a choice of two HMO plans.
No detailed information is available on the main BCBS website; instead consumers are sent down a rather convoluted path to the individual company websites. The Blue Shield of California website offers very little information on the plans aside from a few bullet points that include $0 premium plans with no deductible and no co pay for some services. Further information is available on request.
The Anthem Blue Cross website was a little more helpful, with a search eventually landing on a basic outline of the three plans available. Two are $0 premium plans, while a third has a monthly premium. The options are Anthem MediBlue Select, Plus, and Coordination Plus. The site does offer a side-by-side comparison chart to aid in selection. The main differences are in the co pay amounts, out of pocket maximums, and prescription drug coverage.
Because all of the various BCBS websites are different, each experience with researching available plans will also be different. However, it appears that most of the Medicare Advantage plans will follow along similar lines to those seen in California in terms of coverage options. As with all health insurance plans, we would expect PPO plans to be the most expensive.
While Medicare Supplement plans are widely available from BCBS companies, there appears to be no general summary of the plan availability on the website.
A search on the Anthem Blue Shield site in California, where we obtained Medicare Advantage information, returned options for Plans A, F, and N. These are common choices for companies who only offer a few Supplement Plans rather than a full range.
Because there’s no centralized list of what each state offers, the plan choices available may vary widely across the country. We would expect most companies to offer at least the same three as Anthem BlueShield of California, with some offering additional selections.
Part D Prescription Coverage
The main BCBS website also offers an additional chart showing which Part D plans are available in each state. Most states have two options, others have three or more to choose from. This again reflects the differences between the companies.
Our sample returned three plans offered in California. These are Standard, Plus, and Gold. The most basic plan, Standard, has a $400 deductible, while the other two have no deductible. The website offers a full breakdown of the co pays for the various drug tiers; the Gold plan generally has the lowest co pays and coinsurance, which makes sense as it’s also the most expensive.
BCBS Medicare Plan Rates
Since we were able to obtain more detailed information on the Anthem plans in California, we also used their rates for comparison.
There are two $0 premium Advantage plans and one with a monthly premium of $36.30. Based on our comparison rates, these are on the low side; however, we weren’t able to get as much detail on the plans as we would like to make a true comparison of value.
The Medicare Supplement plan quotes based on our usual sample details came back at $136.58 for Plan A and $180.06 for Plan F. Both of those are higher than other companies we have quoted; in the case of the Plan A rate, significantly higher.
The quoted rates for Part D coverage start at $68.20 for the Standard plan, with the highest level of coverage quoted at $159.80. These are quite reasonable in comparison to other, similar plans; in some cases up to 50% less than other companies for the same area.
In addition, as a result of being individual companies (rather than just local branches of one central company) rates may vary even more for BCBS plans than for other insurance companies. Unfortunately, we were not able to get rates on the other California BCBS company in order to provide a comparison between them.
Ratings and Reviews of BCBS
Once again, determining the reputation of BCBS is a complex affair as a result of the many individual companies operating under the name.
The 2016 J.D. Power study of Medicare Advantage customer satisfaction ranked several companies that fall under the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association banner. Both Highmark and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan ranked moderately well, with three stars overall. Anthem, another Association company, did not perform as well – with only 2 stars overall. The variety in the rankings indicates that when choosing a BCBS plan, those who have a choice of different Association companies would do well to consider each of them individually.
When it comes to reviews, each company is listed individually on most review sites, so an overall review for BCBS is not available, nor would it provide consumers with the more specific information they require to make an informed decision. We highly recommend that consumers look at the direct reviews for their local BCBS company.
While star ratings of Medicare Advantage plans can be helpful in making a choice, the overall rating for BCBS is an average of the various plans from various companies. Be sure to look at the ratings for the plans offered in your state.
The Bottom Line
Blue Cross Blue Shield is probably the best-known health insurance company in America, and brand recognition can go a long way. They have a long history with Medicare plans and offer a really good selection of options in most states. However, because they are a group of companies and not one single company, it’s important to research what your local company offers and the individual reputation of the local company before making a decision.
For a list of companies that we recommend, visit our Best Insurance Companies page.