Almost 30,000 seniors in 42 localities in Virginia will lose access to an Anthem Medicare Advantage PPO plan at the end of the year. Nine thousand are from Hampton Roads, including more than 1,200 residents of Newport News and Poquoson, according to Lisa Walker, a Medicare counselor with the Virginia Insurance and Counseling Assistance Program, VICAP.

"It's just a business decision. We're not the only one to make wholesale changes this year. Utilization is something that impacts the decision, as well as medical costs," said Anthem spokesman Scott Golden.

Between 25 and 30 percent of Medicare-eligible seniors opt to contract for Advantage plans with private insurance companies in lieu of original Medicare.

"It's not unusual to have insurance companies non-renew. It's across the board in Virginia," said Liz Havenner, director of VICAP for the state's Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services. She has not noticed any increase in non-renewals this year, and urged everyone — not just Medicare recipients — to review their health benefits plan for the upcoming year.

Medicare's open enrollment period started on Oct. 15 and runs through Dec. 7.

"It's important to look at your benefits package. That's what open enrollment is about," she said. "Call your doctor and make sure there's no issue with it."

For individuals such as Alan Weiss, 86, a Newport News Medicare recipient for two decades, Anthem's letter announcing that the PPO plan would no longer be offered came out of nowhere. "Why Newport News and not Hampton?" he asked. "We breathe the same air." With a chronic heart condition, Weiss is concerned about having access to the same doctors under a new plan.

"Typically they can keep the same doctors," said Havenner, who counsels seniors on plans available in their area and the differences between Medicare Parts A, B, C and D, and their options regarding Medicare Advantage, prescription coverage, and Medigap plans.

Golden couldn't give specifics as to why the plan was dropped in some cities and not others, but said it related to cost rather than the availability of care. He conceded that it was the first time in his recall that a plan had been dropped completely, rather than tweaked or offered with different benefits. In those localities where Anthem is offering a Medicare Advantage limited PPO, including Hampton, Williamsburg, Gloucester and James City County, the formerly zero-premium plan will carry a $70 monthly premium, starting in January.

An Anthem company spokeswoman in Georgia, Cheryl T. Monkhouse reported that the dropped plan wasn't financially viable in the other localities. "We did everything we could to manage costs, including launching a house call program to address members' clinical needs, but they couldn't be sustained," she wrote in an email.

Golden characterized the decision as part of ongoing evaluations of all Anthem plans regarding both Medicare and the regular market. "We're launching new products and discontinuing others," he said. "We've met all the criteria and given them ample notice."

Local Agencies on Aging offer free counseling on health insurance plans to seniors.

"We're just getting bombarded with phone calls," said Bill Massey, CEO of the Peninsula Agency on Aging. "We let them know what other plans are available in their area. They can go back to regular Medicare and pick up the Medigap supplement without medical underwriting," he said. "It happens every year. Optima dropped its plan for 2012."

Like Havenner, Massey urged all Medicare recipients to check their plans for changes in prices, doctors' acceptance, and prescriptions covered.

Medicare enrollment

Open enrollment period for Medicare started Oct. 15 and runs through Dec. 7 for plans starting Jan. 1, 2013. For information, go to http://www.medicare.gov or call 1-800-633-4227. Also, free counseling is available from the Virginia Insurance Counseling and Assistance Program, 1-800-552-3402, or from Lisa Walker, vice president, Aging and Disability Resources, Bay Agency on Aging, 866-758-2386. Those affected on the Southside can call Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia, 757-222-4512.