l If you're just becoming eligible for Medicare, the open enrollment period at the end of the year (Oct. 15 to Dec. 7) is not for you. That time frame specifically allows people who are already in Medicare the option to change their coverage for the following year if they want to. As a Medicare newbie, you get an enrollment period of your very own.
With that awesome milestone coming up fast — the one with 65 written all over it — you may be panicking about what to do about Medicare. Should you enroll? What happens if you don't? What if you already have health insurance? What if you intend to keep on working? Whom should you be contacting? And when?
Getting it right is crucial in avoiding mistakes that could cost you a lot of money and hassle in the future. There's no single way for everybody. The when, what, where, who and why of Medicare depend on your own circumstances. So click on the links below to discover some surprising facts about Medicare enrollment that might have escaped you until now:
- What "qualifying for Medicare" really means
- Why you shouldn't wait for open enrollment or your full retirement age — or for the government to tell you it's time to sign up
- When you should sign up for Medicare — at the right time for you
- Why your spouse's Medicare won't provide family coverage for you
- What happens if you miss your enrollment deadline
- Where to go to sign up for Medicare
- Why you may need to sidestep online enrollment
- What to do about signing up for Medicare if you live abroad
- Who can help if you think you can't afford to enroll in Medicare
If you're approaching age 65, you may think that you don't qualify for Medicare because you haven't paid enough Medicare taxes while working. That is not true. But believing it's true might make you delay Medicare enrollment past your personal deadline — a mistake that could cost you dearly in the future.
Those payroll taxes that were deducted from your paycheck while you worked mean only that after turning 65 you can get Part A benefits without paying monthly premiums for them — provided that you've contributed enough to earn 40 credits (or "quarters"), which is equivalent to about 10 years of work. (Part A covers stays in the hospital and skilled nursing facilities, some home health services and hospice care.) If you don't know how many credits you have, call Social Security at 800-772-1213.
But you don't need any credits to qualify for the other parts of Medicare: Part B (doctors' services, outpatient care and medical equipment) and Part D (prescription drug coverage). As long as you're 65 or over and an American citizen or a legal resident who's lived in the United States for at least five years, you can get these benefits just by paying the required monthly premiums, same as anybody else.
What if you haven't contributed enough in payroll taxes to get Part A benefits without having to pay premiums? You may qualify on the work record of your spouse or, in some circumstances, a divorced or dead spouse. Otherwise, you can choose to buy Part A by paying a monthly premium. In 2020, this amounts to $458 a month if you have fewer than 30 work credits, or $252 a month for 30 to 39 credits.
Even if you're not eligible for premium-free Part A, you should still sign up for Part B (and Part D if you need drug coverage) at the right time for you. Otherwise, your coverage will be delayed and you'd most likely have to pay late penalties for all future years.
Note that you may qualify for Medicare younger than 65 if you have disabilities and meet certain conditions.
2. Why you shouldn't wait for open enrollment or your full retirement age — or for the government to tell you it's time to sign up
If you're just becoming eligible for Medicare, the open enrollment period at the end of the year (Oct. 15 to Dec. 7) is not for you. That time frame specifically allows people who are already in Medicare the option to change their coverage for the following year if they want to. As a Medicare newbie, you get an enrollment period of your very own, as explained in the section headed "When you should sign up for Medicare — at the right time for you."
Similarly, you shouldn't wait until you reach your full retirement age (currently 66) before enrolling in Medicare — unless you continue to have health coverage after age 65 from your own or your spouse's current employment.
And you shouldn't hang around waiting for the government to send a letter telling you that it's time to sign up for Medicare. It won't happen — unless you already receive Social Security benefits, in which case you'll be signed up automatically just before your 65th birthday.
In all these situations, postponing Medicare enrollment could bring serious consequences (delayed coverage and late penalties), as explained in the section headed "What happens if you miss your enrollment deadline.”