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Would a Government Shutdown Affect Your Medicare?

Older Americans could still get their medical care, prescription drugs and hospital services


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Getty Images/AARP

The U.S. government continues to be on the verge of a shutdown of some vital federal services. If it occurs, several departments would be unable to operate beginning March 8, with others due to run out of money on March 22. But there is some good news for older Americans: Your Medicare benefits will not fall victim to a shutdown, even if lawmakers and the White House can’t agree on how to fund government operations before the March deadlines.

Unlike most government services that rely on Congress to appropriate money for them to operate each year, some vital programs, like Medicare and Social Security, are paid for under a category called “mandatory spending.” 

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That means the more than 66 million Americans who get their health care through the Medicare program can still go to the doctor, get hospital care and fill their prescriptions for medications without interruption. 

But there could be some lag in services. According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, 51 percent of its staff would be furloughed during a shutdown. That means people who need help from a Medicare representative could, for example, encounter longer wait times when contacting the Medicare hotline (800-633-4227), even though it would continue to operate. In addition, providers waiting for payment could see a lag, and other administrative services could be curtailed.

Enrolling in Medicare

People who are about to turn 65 or have a disability that qualifies them for Medicare can still apply for the program during a shutdown.

Remember, even though the Medicare program is run by CMS, the Social Security Administration handles enrollment, and applications for enrollment would continue to be available at ssa.gov during a shutdown. SSA is also responsible for automatically taking an enrollee’s Part B premium out of their monthly benefit payment, and that would continue. Medicare Part B pays for doctor visits and other outpatient services.

The SSA is also responsible for administering Medicare cards and says that during a shutdown it would not be able to replace lost Medicare cards. That shouldn’t impact a beneficiary’s ability to get medical care, however, since their enrollment information would be available to them and providers at Medicare.gov.

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