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Sign Up for Medicare During Your Own Enrollment Period

Fall open enrollment does not apply; initial or special enrollment period does

Q: I'm turning 65 in June and need to sign up for Medicare. But I've read that open enrollment takes place only in the fall. Do I have to wait that long without coverage?

A: Absolutely not. The open enrollment period you refer to (Oct. 15 to Dec. 7) does not apply to you. That's only for people who are already in Medicare, giving them the opportunity to change their coverage for the following year if they want to. As a newbie to Medicare, you get an enrollment period of your very own, depending on the circumstances.

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Initial enrollment period (IEP) at age 65: This lasts for seven months, with the month of your 65th birthday counting as the fourth month. (For example, if you turn 65 in October, your IEP begins July 1 and ends Jan. 31.) If you sign up in the first three months of this time frame, your coverage begins on the first day of your birthday month. Signing up later in your IEP delays coverage for one, two or three months, depending on when you enroll.

Initial enrollment period for people with disabilities: If you're younger than 65 but qualify for Medicare because of disability, Social Security automatically enrolls you and sends your Medicare ID card through the mail. Your coverage begins on the first day of the month in which your entitlement to Medicare becomes effective, which is usually the first day of the 25th month after your disability benefits start. (People diagnosed with permanent kidney failure or with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — better known as Lou Gehrig's disease — can get Medicare coverage without waiting two years.) The date when your Medicare coverage begins is printed on your card.

Special enrollment period (SEP) for people with current employer health insurance: If you're covered under a group health plan provided by an employer for whom you or your spouse actively work, you can choose to delay Medicare enrollment (and postpone the premiums) after age 65 until this employment ends, without incurring late penalties. The SEP continues throughout the time you have this coverage and for up to eight months after the employment or health insurance ends (whichever comes first). If the employer has fewer than 20 workers, however, the rules may be different; in this case, ask the administrators of the employer plan how it fits in with Medicare.

Note: If you're already receiving Social Security retirement benefits, you'll be enrolled in Medicare automatically. (But you can opt out of Part B if you want to — for example, if you have health insurance from your own or your spouse's employer.) Otherwise, you need to apply for Medicare during your IEP or SEP by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213.

Patricia Barry is a senior editor for AARP Integrated Media and the author of Medicare for Dummies (Wiley/AARP, October 2013).

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