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Medicare Starter Kit

What you most need to know

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Medicare starter kit

What you need to know about Medicare when you’re new to the program. — Illustration by R.O. Blechman

En español | You're a boomer. The milestone of your 65th birthday may be here or just over the horizon. But you know zip about Medicare. Do you need it? What does it cover? When should you sign up? Lots of questions — but don't panic. You can get your head around Medicare with this guide to what you most need to know.

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Top Eight Do's and Don'ts

1. Do give yourself time to learn about Medicare: It's a system with many choices and deadlines. Being informed is the best way to avoid mistakes that cost money.

2. Don't expect to be notified when it's time to sign up: Unless you're already receiving Social Security benefits, you must apply for Medicare. But you won't get any official notice on when or how to enroll.

3. Do enroll when you're supposed to: To avoid permanent late penalties, enroll at age 65 if you don’t have insurance from an employer for whom you or your spouse is still working or if you live abroad without working; or, beyond 65, enroll within eight months of stopping work — even if you continue to receive COBRA or retiree health benefits from an employer.

4. Don't despair if you haven't worked long enough to qualify: You may qualify for Medicare on your current or former spouse's work record. Or you may be able to buy into the program.

5. Don't worry that poor health will affect your coverage: If you qualify for Medicare, you receive full benefits. You can't be denied coverage or charged higher premiums because of current or past health problems.

6. Do remember that Medicare is not free: You pay premiums for coverage and copayments for most services, unless you qualify for a low-income program or have other, extra insurance.

7. Don't assume that Medicare covers everything: It covers a wide range of health services (including expensive ones like organ transplants), prescription drugs and medical equipment. But there are gaps.

8. Don't expect Medicare to cover your dependents: Nobody can get Medicare under age 65, except those who qualify through disability. Medicare has no family coverage.

Next: What does Medicare cover? »

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