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Learn more about Medicare enrollment

Retired couple learning about Medicare enrollment options

If you’re like most people, you have some questions about Medicare coverage. Which part of Medicare should I apply for? Who can enroll? How do I apply for Medicare? When are the Medicare open enrollment dates?

Medicare can save you lots of money and give you excellent health care coverage when you pick the right plans and understand the system. Let’s sort through the basics so you can make an informed decision about your health care coverage.

Medicare enrollment eligibility

First, let’s talk about eligibility. Most people qualify for Original Medicare (Parts A and B) when they turn 65. You’re eligible for Medicare based on your age, whether you’re retired or still working, and whether or not you’re receiving Social Security benefits. You may also be eligible for Medicare if you’re younger than 65 and meet certain criteria.

When to enroll in Medicare: the Initial Enrollment Period

Around the time of your 65th birthday, there’s a seven-month window, called the Initial Enrollment Period (IEP), when you can apply for Medicare:

  • Three months before the month you turn 65
  • The month you turn 65
  • Three months after the month you turn 65

If you’re getting Social Security benefits at least four months before your 65th birthday, you’re automatically enrolled in Parts A and B. Social Security will send you Medicare information and a Medicare card prior to your 65th birthday.

If you’re getting group health insurance through your employer or your spouse’s employer, you may be able to delay Part A and Part B without a late enrollment penalty.

During the IEP, you can sign up for Medicare Part A and/or Part B by contacting your local Social Security office or applying through Social Security’s online portal. Applying online takes about 10 minutes.

During your IEP, you also have an option to pick a Medicare Advantage (Part C) or Prescription Drug Plan (Part D) from a private insurer, once you’ve applied to Original Medicare.

Medicare enrollment deadlines & penalties

The government does require you to have insurance, so if you don’t have coverage, try to sign up within that seven-month IEP to avoid a coverage gap fee.

If you miss that sign-up window and you weren’t automatically enrolled, you can apply during Medicare Open Enrollment, which is October 15 to December 7 each year.

However, if you missed the IEP because of life circumstances, you might be eligible to apply during a Special Enrollment Period (SEP).

Medicare Special Enrollment Period

The SEP is an additional window of time to apply, add, drop or change your Medicare coverage outside of enrollment periods, due to certain life circumstances. If you didn’t apply to Original Medicare during your IEP because you had not yet retired and still had health insurance through your employer or your spouse’s employer, the SEP allows you to sign up for Original Medicare without a penalty.

The SEP also allows you to make Medicare plan changes for a number of reasons. For example, you can adjust insurance if you move out of your plan’s coverage area or if you start qualifying for Extra Help.

Medicare General Enrollment Period

The General Enrollment Period for Original Medicare is January 1 through March 31 of each year. You can apply during this time if you missed the IEP (when you were first eligible), but keep in mind you may have to pay a late enrollment penalty.

Medicare Open Enrollment Period (or Annual Election Period)

You can also get Original Medicare benefits through a Medicare Advantage plan, also known as Medicare Part C. To enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan, you must go through a private insurer and already have Original Medicare (Parts A and B). Medicare Advantage plans add benefits Original Medicare doesn’t offer, such as dental, vision and hearing insurance. Or you might want to add prescription drug coverage to your Original Medicare by enrolling in a Part D plan (which private insurers also offer).

During the Annual Enrollment Period – also called the Annual Election Period – from October 15 to December 7 of each year, you can add, drop or change your Medicare Advantage plan and Prescription Drug Plans  if you choose. Or you can adjust your coverage to include additional benefits. You also have a chance to change your Medicare Advantage plan from January 1 to March 31 during the Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment Period.

Explore all your Medicare plan options to find the right plan for you.


Y0114_20_111907_U  CMS Accepted 8/29/2019
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