The process for enrolling in Medicare is surprisingly easy.
Before enrolling you will need to decide how you want your Medicare delivered. There are quite a few options to choose from.
If you already receive social security or Railroad Retirement Board benefits, you will be enrolled automatically in Medicare Part A and B at age 65.
If not, you will need to sign up by your enrollment deadline—typically, three months after the month you turn age 65.
Instead of falling into the trap of listening to what other friends or family members suggest, do your own research! The best plan for you depends on your situation, such as your current medications, your age, and whether you live part of the year in another state.
How Medicare is delivered
First, it’s important to understand the different options.
Medicare Part A. Also called hospital insurance, Medicare Part A covers care in a hospital, skilled nursing facility, and hospice. It provides limited coverage for nursing home and home health services.
Medicare Part B. Medicare Part B, which is optional, covers doctor visits, lab tests, outpatient surgeries, preventative care, and medically necessary services and equipment.
Together, Medicare Part A and Part B are often referred to as “Original Medicare”.
Medicare Part C. Commonly known as “ Medicare Advantage.” Part C is run by private insurance companies and health providers such as Blue Cross.
These plans must cover the same services provided by Original Medicare and may cover other services such as prescription drugs and dental, hearing, and vision care.
This alternative to Original Medicare usually takes the form of a health maintenance organization (HMO) plan or a preferred provider organization (PPO) plan.
With an HMO plan, you will select a primary care doctor; except for emergencies, that doctor will refer you only to health providers within the HMO network.
With a PPO, you have the option of getting care outside the network, but your copay will be higher than for visits to in-network providers.
Medicare Part D. Medicare Part D is a stand-alone plan that covers prescription drug costs. This coverage option is offered by private insurance companies and health providers.
Medigap. Medigap, also called Medicare supplement insurance, is another type of optional coverage offered by private insurance companies. It is designed to pay some or all of your Medicare Part A and Part B coinsurance and deductibles. The 10 different Medigap available plan options are standardized according to federal and state regulations.
Premiums vary between carriers, so it pays to shop around. You cannot buy a Medigap plan if you enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan because Medicare Advantage plans offer their own schedule of deductibles, coinsurance, and/or copays.
Paying for Medicare
Medicare is not free. Most people do not pay a premium for Medicare Part A, but they are responsible for deductibles and coinsurance unless enrolled in a Medigap or Medicare Advantage plan. (Please note: Medicare Part A is available to Americans 65 or older, even if you or your spouse did not pay Medicare taxes while working.)
There is a premium for Part B. Those not currently collecting social security benefits or those with higher income levels will pay a higher rate for their Part B coverage. If you receive social security benefits, your Part B premium will be deducted automatically from your monthly benefit checks.
The premium for Medicare Advantage, which includes both Part A and Part B, depends on the plan. If you opt for a Medicare Advantage plan, you will likely pay an extra premium (on top of your Part B premium), although some providers may offer a zero-premium option.
To compare the costs and ratings of various Medicare Advantage and drug prescription plans, visit the Medicare website at www.medicare.gov/find-a-plan/questions/home.aspx.
You can compare the costs for Medigap plans at www.medicare.gov/supplement-other-insurance/compare-medigap/compare-medigap.html .
Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, contact the providers for more information on the differences between plans.
Additional income-based factors. If your income is high enough, you may have to pay an income-related monthly adjustment amount (IRMAA) as part of your Part B and Part D prescription drug premiums. The IRMAA is based on your modified adjusted gross income from your tax return filed two years prior to the current year. If your income for the current year will be substantially lower, contact your local social security office to ask for an adjustment to your premium.
Reducing your work hours, retiring, getting married or divorced, or losing a spouse may result in an adjustment in premiums. To determine your estimated cost of Medicare coverage, you can review the information available at www.medicare.gov/your-medicare-costs/index.html .
If you have limited income and resources, you may qualify for help paying premiums through federal and state programs. Those who automatically qualify for assistance will be contacted by the Social Security Administration. You may also contact your local social security office to discuss your circumstances.
Medicare enrollment dates
A word of caution: Don’t confuse Medicare open enrollment dates with your required enrollment period.
Open enrollment, which runs between October 15 and December 7, applies to those who are already enrolled in Medicare and want to make changes to their plans or plan provider.
Your initial enrollment period is based on your age or when you leave your or your spouse’s employer’s group health insurance plan.
You must enroll in Medicare within the seven-month period starting three months prior to the month you reach age 65 and ending three months after the month you reach age 65.
You can delay enrollment if you are covered by your or your spouse’s employer’s group health insurance plan, but only if the employer has 20 or more employees. If you miss your Medicare enrollment deadline, your part B premiums will be increased permanently, and you may face a gap in health care coverage. COBRA is not treated as a group health insurance plan for purposes of avoiding the late enrollment penalty.
If you are enrolled in your former employer’s retiree health insurance plan, check with your provider to see if enrollment in Medicare Part B is required and how your plan coordinates with Medicare. If you are required to enroll in Part B and fail to do so, you may find that your retiree plan will not pay for services Medicare would have covered were you enrolled.