Barbara Leickel of Lehighton knows how important Medicare's open enrollment period is to seniors.

Last year, after reviewing her policies with certified counselors, she found that switching her Part D coverage would save her a significant amount of money on her medications.

Shirley and Earl Knappenberger of Ashfield agree.

They have taken advantage of the open enrollment annually since signing up for Medicare over a decade ago because policies and procedures change frequently and this period is a time to get all your questions answered.

Over the last 13 years the couple has worked with certified counselors to review their policies. They have found that through open enrollment, they are ensuring they are saving money without sacrificing quality and services in their plan.

"It puts your mind at ease," Earl said recently. "You don't have to worry because you get your questions answered and see what your best options are."

Leickel and the Knappenbergers are just three of the over 50 million Medicare beneficiaries across the country who can take advantage of this seven-week period, which ends Dec. 7, where they can switch Medicare coverage without getting penalized.

Susan Zeigler, care management supervisor for the Carbon County Area Agency on Aging, explained that Medicare's annual open enrollment period allows individuals who have Original Medicare or Medicare's Advantage Plans the opportunity to review their plans and make any changes they would like to better suit their needs.

"This is the one time of year that they can look at different plans and switch if they want," she said. "If you don't during the open enrollment period, then you are sort of stuck until the next open enrollment period."

For example, they can switch from Original Medicare to an advantage plan or vice versa; change from one advantage plan to another; join a Medicare prescription drug plan or drop coverage completely.

Zeigler added that it is important to look at your Medicare plans annually because policies and coverage changes and rates go up.

For example, Zeigler noted one case who didn't look at her plan for three years. When she visited the Area Agency on Aging's free checkups, held during each open enrollment period, she learned she was paying too much for prescription drugs.

Zeigler said that through that check the woman was able to save $12 a month on her premium and drastically drop the cost of her medications.

"If you haven't had your plan checked in a while, it's always good to at least check to see what's out there," Zeigler said. "You could save a lot of money."

The agency is holding the annual free open enrollment checkups, available to all seniors throughout the Carbon County area.

Certified counselors are available between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. at the following locations:

On Mondays, seniors can visit the Lehighton Senior Center, located at 243 S. Eighth St., Lehighton.

Tuesdays: Weatherly Senior Center, 335 Third St., Weatherly.

Wednesdays: Jim Thorpe/Penn Kidder Senior Center, 1874 State Route 903, Suite 11-A, Jim Thorpe.

Thursdays: the Palmerton Library, 402 Delaware Ave., Palmerton.

Fridays: Lehigh Carbon Community College, Carbon campus, 24 E. Locust St., Nesquehoning.

You must bring the following items to the appointment:

Ÿ Your Medicare card

Ÿ Pennsylvania Access or managed care identification cards if you have Medicaid;

Ÿ Any other insurance or prescription drug cards and benefit booklets;

Ÿ The approximate monthly out-of-pocket dollar amount you pay for prescriptions and other medical co-pays;

Ÿ The approximate monthly amount you pay now for insurance plan premiums;

Ÿ Any letters about insurance coverage from Social Security or Medicare about your eligibility for extra help or changes in prescription drug coverage;

Ÿ Any letters from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare about changes to Medicaid coverage, Medicare health plan premiums or prescription drug co-pays;

Ÿ Any other correspondence about Part D coverage, including letters from your employer, union or retiree insurance plan;

Ÿ A complete and up-to-date list of all medications currently being taken, as well as the strength of the prescriptions and daily dosage.

During the appointments, counselors will look at your plan and review all medications and then make a recommendation on which plan will best meet your needs.

In addition, the counselors will also provide an extra screening to see if the person meets the guidelines for APPRISE, the state health insurance assistance program, which could provide financial assistance with paying Medicare Part B premiums, lower prescription copays and premiums, or cover the cost of the "doughnut hole."

To schedule an appointment with a counselor, call the Area Agency on Aging, Monday through Friday at 1-800-441-1315.