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5 Steps to Help You Enroll in Medicare

Learn about the steps to take to enroll in Medicare and decisions you need to make about coverage

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If you’re nearing your 65th birthday, it’s time to start thinking about enrolling in Medicare, the federal health insurance program that helps tens of millions of older adults and younger people with disabilities pay for their health care.

If you’re not receiving Social Security benefits, you’ll need to take steps to enroll. Keep in mind, you can enroll only at certain times. If you sign up late, you could end up with gaps in coverage and costly penalties for as long as you have Medicare.

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Signing up for Medicare is essentially a five-step process. We walk you through each step in detail.

1. Do your homework before turning 65

You can start exploring your Medicare options in your early 60s, but you should look more closely as soon as you turn 64. Consider taking the following steps.

  • Meet with your benefits manager to discuss health insurance options if you’re still working.
  • Determine your Medicare enrollment window. This is the seven-month initial enrollment period that begins three months before the month you turn 65 and ends three months after your birthday month.
  • Check out the Medicare website and master the online tools.
  • Create a My Social Security account if you don’t have one already. You can use it to enroll in Medicare online.

Start investigating how you plan to get coverage about six months before you turn 65. You might opt for original Medicare, also known as traditional Medicare, which includes Part A hospitalization coverage and Part B doctor and outpatient services. Many people who have original Medicare purchase Part D prescription drug coverage and a supplemental Medigap policy, which can help pay some of your out-of-pocket costs, such as deductibles, copayments and other expenses.

Another option is to sign up for a Medicare Advantage plan, which includes parts A and B and usually Part D.

Before you turn 65, it’s a good idea to learn about programs that could help you afford Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs and provide extra help to pay for Part D coverage.

2. Look at enrolling — if you’re not already on Social Security

If you’re not receiving Social Security benefits yet, you’ll have to take action to enroll in Medicare. You’re ready to sign up if:

  • You’re within three months on either side of the month you turn 65.
  • You’ve decided whether you’ll keep any health insurance you’re receiving through your job or your spouse’s job.
  • You’ve made the choice between original Medicare and Medicare Advantage.
  • You’ve decided whether you’ll buy a Part D plan if you’ve opted for original Medicare and don’t have prescription drug coverage from an employer or retiree plan.

3. Sign up for parts A and B of Medicare

Whether you’ve decided to get coverage through original Medicare or Medicare Advantage, you first need to sign up for parts A and B as the foundation for either option. How you enroll and the timing depend on your personal situation.

Remember, unless you or your spouse work for a company with 20 or more employees that provides you with health insurance, you typically should sign up for Medicare at age 65 to avoid coverage gaps. Determine which scenario applies to you below and click the link for a step-by-step guide to enroll.

  • I’m already receiving Social Security retirement benefits. If so, you’ll be enrolled automatically in parts A and B of Medicare. If you live in Puerto Rico, be aware that the rules for this U.S. territory are different.
  • I’m signing up during my initial enrollment period. This time frame includes the three months before you turn 65 through the three months after you turn 65. If you aren’t receiving Social Security benefits at 65, you’ll need to take steps to enroll in Medicare.
  • I’m signing up during a special enrollment period. You can enroll in Medicare outside the initial enrollment period by meeting certain conditions, such as if you or your spouse is still working and you have coverage from that employer. You can enroll in Part B up to eight months after you or your spouse stops working and you lose that health insurance. If you miss that eight-month window, you may have to pay a late enrollment penalty or have a gap in coverage.
  • I’m signing up during a general enrollment period. If you don’t enroll in Medicare during your initial enrollment period and you don’t qualify for a special enrollment period, you can sign up during the general enrollment period, which runs Jan. 1 to March 31 annually. You may have to pay a late enrollment penalty.

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4. Decide if you need financial help

Medicare isn’t free to those who participate. You’re expected to share costs by paying Part B and Part D premiums — and sometimes Part A and Medicare Advantage premiums — as well as any deductibles, copayments or coinsurance for services you use.

  • Original Medicare doesn’t have a limit on its out-of-pocket costs.
  • Medicare Advantage plans have out-of-pocket limits. But you still have to pay premiums for Part B, sometimes Part A and even for the plans themselves, in addition to deductibles, copays and potentially coinsurance.
  • Part D prescription drug plans have their own monthly premiums and often have deductibles and copays.
  • And to be covered for dentalhearing and vision if you choose original Medicare, you’ll have to buy separate insurance plans with their own cost sharing or pay as needed from your savings. Keep in mind, Medicare Advantage plans often provide dental, hearing and vision coverage.

If your income is low and you don’t have much savings or assets, you may qualify for financial assistance. Several federal and state programs could help reduce the cost of parts A and B and make Part D more affordable.

5. Choose your additional coverage

After you’ve signed up for parts A and B of Medicare, it’s time to enroll in the additional coverage you need.

  • Do you want a Medicare Advantage plan? We’ll walk you through a sample search using Medicare’s Plan Finder tool.
  • Do you need Part D prescription drug coverage? We’ll show you how to use Medicare’s Plan Finder tool to search for a plan.
  • Do you want a Medigap policy? You can view a sample search using Medicare’s Medigap Plan Finder tool.

Rest assured, help is available to navigate Medicare. We’ve tried to demystify some of Medicare’s complex systems, but talking with a person who can help you through the process is nice. Call 800-MEDICARE (800-633-4227), or if you’re comfortable using live chat on your computer, you can click on the Chat Now button on Medicare’s Talk to Someone web page. You can also get help from your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP).

Video: What Are the Biggest Mistakes When Signing Up for Medicare?

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