Signing up for Medicare: what you need to know

Health

Every American becomes eligible for Medicare at age 65, but receiving the right benefits for your needs isn’t automatic. Often, you need to sign up—and make some big choices once you do. If you’ve taken a look at the process and feel confused, you’re not alone. “Millions of beneficiaries struggle to understand the differences between plans and the impact of their decisions on the future,” says Melissa Simpson, a program manager at the National Council on Aging, an advocacy organization for those 60 and older. 

Here, Simpson answers some of the most common questions baby boomers have about Medicare, so that you can sign up at the right time—and make the best choices. 

Q: When should I enroll?  
A: If you’re already retired or do not have other insurance, you should sign up for Medicare as soon as you’re eligible. If you already draw a Social Security retirement check, you will be automatically enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B the month you turn 65 (you’ll receive a Medicare card three months before). If you’re not taking Social Security, you must enroll yourself, which you can do at your nearest Social Security Administration office or at SSA.gov.

People who are still working and have employer group health coverage after age 65 can delay Medicare Parts A, B, and D until retirement and avoid late-enrollment penalties. 

Q: How do I choose the right coverage for my needs?
A. If you like automated tools, try the Medicare QuickCheck, which poses a series of questions and gives you a report based on your circumstances (find it at mymedicarematters.org). The State Health Insurance Assistance Programs, which are funded by a federal grant, are another resource that provides free, unbiased Medicare information. Visit shiptacenter.orgto find contact information for your state.

Q: Are there deadlines for enrollment?
A: When you’re first eligible for Medicare, you have a seven-month Initial Enrollment Period to sign up for Parts A and/or B. After that, you can sign up for Part A for free any time after your Initial Enrollment Period. If you want to enroll in Part B after the Initial Enrollment Period, you can only do so during the General Enrollment Period, which is from January 1 to March 31. 

Keep in mind, there are late-enrollment penalties for Medicare Parts A, B, and D. The enrollment penalties for Parts A and B are 10 percent of the monthly premium for each year you wait. The Part D late enrollment penalty is 1 percent of the national base premium for each month you wait to enroll if you don’t have creditable coverage.

Q: How can I save on premiums?
A: Shop and compare plans during the Open Enrollment Period, October 15 to December 7 every year. You may pay too much if you don’t switch plans, as costs and coverage can change annually. There are programs called Extra Help and Medicare Savings Program that can pay the premiums and costs associated with Medicare. These programs have income and asset criteria you have to meet, which you can find at medicare.gov.

In addition, you should take advantage of Medicare preventive services to get regular screenings and preventive medicine to detect and treat disease early. Medicare pays for flu shots, mammograms, colonoscopies, an Annual Wellness Visit, and several other services at no out-of-pocket cost.

Understanding the Different Parts of Medicare
If you’re not already familiar with the four parts of Medicare and what each one covers, here’s a quick primer. Keep in mind that Parts B, C, and D require premium payments.
For a more in-depth look at all parts of Medicare, visit the official website here

Part A: Hospital insurance. This helps pay for inpatient care at a hospital or at a nursing facility after hospital care. It may also help with home health care or hospice. 

Part B: Medical insurance. This helps pay for doctors’ services, as well as other services and supplies that hospital insurance (Part A) doesn’t cover. 

Part C: Also known as Medicare Advantage. These plans are offered by private companies approved by Medicare. They help pay for expenses not covered in Parts A and B. (Please note that you must have Medicare Parts A and B to enroll.)

Part D: Prescription drug coverage. Also offered by private companies approved by Medicare, these plans can help you pay for medications prescribed by your doctor.

For more information about Medicare, visit mymedicare.gov or contact Medicare at 800-MEDICARE.

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