How and When to Apply for Medicare 

In the United States today, there are more than 65 million people enrolled in Medicare because they meet the age requirement or have qualifying disabilities. 

When you reach the age of 65, you can enroll in any of the following four parts of Medicare: 

  • Part A (hospital insurance) covers inpatient stays in hospitals, skilled nursing care facilities, and hospices. 
  • Part B (medical insurance) covers outpatient health care services and medical supplies.  
  • Part C (Medicare Advantage) are policies sold by private insurance companies that are affiliated with Medicare. Part C combines Parts A and B, and many Part C plans also include prescription drug (Part D) coverage and extra benefits.  
  • Part D is prescription drug coverage. These plans are also sold by private insurance companies that work with Medicare. 

Original Medicare Parts A and B are standard benefits available everywhere in the United States, but Part C plans may vary depending on where you live. Knowing what plans are available in your service area and what benefits they offer is vital to getting the right health care coverage for your medical needs. Thankfully, online plan comparison sites allow you to view Medicare plans side by side and find the coverage that’s right for you. 

If your 65th birthday is coming up soon, you might be thinking about when and how to enroll in Medicare, here’s a look at some important details. 

When can you apply for Medicare? 

Automatic enrollment

If you have been receiving Social Security retirement or Railroad Retirement Board benefits for at least four months before turning 65, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will automatically enroll you in Original Medicare Part A and Part B. However, you won’t be enrolled in Part B automatically if you live in Puerto Rico or outside the United States, so if you choose to add Part B, you’ll have to do it yourself. 

If the SSA enrolls you in Original Medicare Parts A and B automatically, you can make changes to your coverage up to the end of your Initial Enrollment Period. 

Initial Enrollment Period

If you aren’t receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement benefits when you turn 65, you must enroll yourself. Most people enroll in Medicare at 65 to avoid late enrollment penalties. 

Your Initial Enrollment Period (IEP) begins three months before the month that you turn 65. It includes your entire birth month and ends three months later. This gives you seven months to enroll in whichever part of Medicare you choose without penalty. 

If you miss your IEP, you can enroll later, but you’ll have to pay a late enrollment penalty every month that you have Part B coverage. 

Special enrollment periods

If you continue working after age 65, and you or your spouse have health insurance coverage that’s comparable to Medicare, you can enroll in Medicare Part B during a special enrollment period without penalty.  

In this case, you can enroll:

  • At any time while you’re still working and covered by your group plan.
  • Within eight months of the day you (or your spouse) retire. 
  • Within eight months of the day your group plan ends, even if you or your spouse continue working.

Special enrollment periods are also available for people who are moving back to the U.S. after living abroad and for other reasons. 

Other Medicare enrollment periods

Medicare also provides the following enrollment periods for beneficiaries to switch, add, or drop Medicare plans:

  • The Annual Open Enrollment Period (AEP) that occurs annually from October 15 to December 7. Only beneficiaries who are already enrolled in Medicare can make changes to coverage during this period.  
  • The General Enrollment Period (GEP) that occurs annually from January 1 to March 31. You can enroll in Medicare for the first time during the GEP, but you may pay late enrollment penalties. 

How do you apply for Medicare? 

If you’re ready to enroll in Medicare, you can contact the Social Security Administration and fill out an application for your health care benefits. You can apply for Original Medicare Part A only, or for both Parts A and B. 

If you’re eligible, you can also apply for retirement benefits from the SSA or the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB), and you’ll be automatically enrolled in Original Medicare Part A if you’re 65 or older. At this time, you can also choose to enroll in Original Medicare Part B through the SSA. 

You can apply for Medicare through the official website of the Social Security Administration. On the website, you create a secure, personal account called “mySocialSecurity” which keeps track of your Social Security and Medicare information. 

You can also apply for Medicare in person at a local SSA office, or you can call the official SSA toll-free phone number (1-800-772-1213) and get assistance from a live agent. 

If you or your spouse work for the railroad and you will receive RRB retirement benefits, you can call their toll-free phone number (1-877-772-5772) to ask for assistance with the Medicare enrollment process. 

Approximately two weeks after you enroll in Medicare, you’ll get your Medicare card and a welcome package in the mail. 

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