The answer depends on whether your spouse works for a small business or a large company.
No matter what the size of the company, you won’t have to pay a late enrollment penalty if you have health coverage through your spouse’s current employer and you enroll in Medicare within eight months of losing that coverage. But if you get your coverage through a small business, you may face gaps that you’ll have to pay for yourself if you don’t sign up for Medicare at age 65.
If your spouse’s company has 20 or more employees, it must offer the same health benefits to employees and their spouses who are 65 or older that it offers to younger workers and their spouses. But the employer can’t require you or your spouse to enroll in Medicare at age 65.
The company-sponsored health insurance will continue to be what pays medical bills first, as the primary payer. Medicare will be the secondary payer.
Even with employer coverage, many people turning 65 enroll in Medicare Part A. They don't have to pay premiums if they or their spouse has paid Medicare taxes for 40 quarters or more, the equivalent of 10 years’ work. If you’re qualifying for Medicare through your spouse, you have to be married at least a year before applying. Some people delay enrolling in Part A while working so they can contribute to a health savings account, because you can’t make new HSA contributions after enrolling in Medicare Part A or Part B.
People often delay signing up for Medicare Part B so they don’t have to pay premiums for both Medicare and the employer’s coverage. In 2023, Part B costs $164.90 a month for most people and more for high earners.
When your spouse retires, gets laid off or otherwise stops working for this employer, you will be entitled to a special enrollment period (SEP) to sign up for Medicare. You can enroll in Part B anytime while your spouse is working or up to eight months afterward without incurring a late enrollment penalty.
If your spouse’s company has fewer than 20 employees, Medicare generally becomes the primary payer when you turn 65 and the employer’s coverage is secondary. This means that Medicare pays your bills first and the employer’s plan pays only for services it covers but Medicare doesn’t. In this case, if you’re not enrolled in Medicare, you would receive almost no coverage from the employer plan.
If Medicare becomes the primary payer, you generally need to sign up during your seven-month initial enrollment period, which begins three months before the month you turn 65 and ends three months after your birthday month. In rare cases, some small businesses continue to provide primary coverage after age 65.
Check whether your spouse’s employer plan requires you, as a covered dependent, to enroll in Medicare when you turn 65. If the employer says that you don’t have to enroll in Medicare, get the response in writing.
Yes. You can delay signing up for Medicare only if you or your spouse has coverage from a current employer. Even if you’re covered by your spouse’s retiree health insurance, you need to enroll in Medicare no later than eight months after your spouse stops working or you may have to pay a lifetime late enrollment penalty when you do enroll in Part B. Federal retirees have special rules.
That’s also the case if your spouse continues his or her employer’s coverage through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, a federal law that requires companies with 20 or more employees to offer health insurance for up to 18 months, 36 in some cases, after workers leave their job. COBRA doesn’t count as active employment, so you must enroll in Medicare during your initial enrollment period to avoid late enrollment penalties.
Not necessarily. The rules are different for Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage. As long as you continue to receive “creditable” prescription drug coverage under the employer plan — whether your spouse is still working or retired — you don’t need to sign up for a Part D plan.
Creditable coverage means that Medicare considers it to be as good as Part D. This can include coverage from a current employer, former employer or other source, such as a union or military Tricare coverage. You should receive a notice from the plan provider every September letting you know whether Medicare considers the coverage creditable.
If you lose this coverage, you’ll be eligible for a special enrollment period of two months to purchase a Part D plan without incurring a late enrollment penalty.
You’ll have to consider your own coverage if your spouse with employer health coverage turns 65 first. If your spouse is older and enrolls in Medicare instead of keeping the employer’s insurance, you as the younger spouse may lose private health insurance coverage. If that happens, you may need to find other sources of coverage before turning 65 and becoming eligible for Medicare.
One option is to continue the employer’s coverage through COBRA, which can last up to 36 months if you lose employer coverage because your spouse enrolls in Medicare. Other options are to buy a private plan through the Affordable Care Act federal insurance marketplace or through a state that has its own exchange.
Updated February 2, 2023
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