Q. I meant to change my Medicare drug plan before the end of the year, but didn’t get around to it. Is there any chance of switching to another plan now?
A. Maybe. In most cases, you can change from one Part D drug plan to another only during the annual open enrollment period that runs from November 15 to December 31.
However, there’s another Medicare open enrollment period, from January 1 through March 31. This three-month time frame dates from before Part D existed and is mainly intended for switches between Medicare’s private health plans or between these plans and the traditional Medicare program. But it also allows you to change Part D drug plans in certain situations—depending on the type of plan you have now and the type you want to switch to.
Either plan type may be a “stand-alone” prescription drug plan (PDP), which covers only drugs and is typically used by people who receive their medical benefits from the traditional Medicare program, or it may be a Medicare Advantage health plan that covers prescription drugs as well as medical services (MAPD).
You can use the January-March enrollment period in the following circumstances:
- To switch from a stand-alone PDP to an MAPD.
- To switch from one MAPD to another Medicare Advantage plan that includes drug coverage.
- To switch from an MAPD to traditional Medicare (for medical benefits) plus a PDP (for drug coverage).
- To switch from a Medicare Advantage plan that doesn’t offer drug coverage to another MA plan without drug coverage.
- To switch from traditional Medicare alone (when you don’t have coverage from a stand-alone PDP) to an MA plan that doesn’t offer drug coverage, or vice versa.
You cannot use the January-March open enrollment period in the following situations:
- To switch from one stand-alone PDP to another.
- To sign up for Part D drug coverage if you don’t already have it.
- To drop drug coverage by moving from a plan that covers drugs to one that doesn’t.
Of course, there are exceptions. Note that none of the above applies to you if:
- You’re just joining Medicare for the first time and are still within your seven-month initial enrollment period. You can sign up for a Part D plan, whether a PDP or an MAPD, at any time within that time frame. For example, if your 65th birthday is in November, your initial enrollment period—and your first chance to enroll in Part D—won’t expire until the last day of February (three months after the end of the month in which you turned 65).
- You’re entitled to low-cost drug coverage under Part D’s Extra Help program; or you enter, leave, or live in a nursing home. In these situations, you can change drug plans at any time of the year.
- You’re entitled to a special enrollment period to join Part D at other times of the year in certain circumstances—for example, if you lose other drug coverage, such as from an employer’s health plan; if you return from living abroad or are released from prison; or if you move outside the service area of your current Part D plan. For more information on special enrollment periods, see the Medicare Rights Center’s website.
Patricia Barry is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.