Now that you’ve decided to join Medicare Advantage (Part C) as a way to receive your Medicare benefits, you may be wondering when you can enroll. Medicare only allows you to join, switch or make changes at very specific times—when you first get Medicare and during yearly enrollment periods. It’s important to know when these specific deadlines occur to avoid missing them and delaying your health care coverage.
Initial Enrollment Period
When you first become eligible to receive Medicare, you enter your Initial Enrollment Period. This is a 7-month period of time that begins 3 months before your 65th birthday, includes your birthday month and ends 3 months after. For 7 full months, you are in your unique initial enrollment period and can sign up for Medicare Part C. In most cases, this is the best time to join. However, if you didn’t join and you already have Original Medicare, you can still join a Medicare Advantage plan during other enrollment periods.
Other Enrollment Periods
Annual Enrollment extends between October 15 and December 7. During this time, anyone can join, switch or drop a Medicare Advantage plan. As long as the plan you are requesting receives your information by December 7, your new coverage will begin on January 1. During Annual Enrollment, you can:
Change from Original Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan.
Change from a Medicare Advantage Plan back to Original Medicare.
Switch from one Medicare Advantage plan to another Medicare Advantage plan.
Open Enrollment is the opportunity to make a change after the Annual Enrollment Period. During this time, it is possible to change from a Medicare Advantage Plan to Original Medicare plus a Part D Plan or switch from one Medicare Advantage Plan to another. The Open Enrollment Period is from January 1st to March 31st. Any changes take effect the following month.
Special Enrollment periods were created for people to join and make changes to Medicare Part C when circumstances make it difficult for them to meet regular enrollment periods. For instance, if you move, lose your current coverage, have the opportunity to get other coverage, or meet one of several other special situations, you can usually join, switch or drop a Medicare Advantage plan.
For example, if you are enrolled in Medicare Part C, but move to a new address with better coverage available, you have 2 months to switch plans. If you were living abroad, but are now back in the United States, you have 2 months to join a Medicare Advantage plan. Or, if you lose coverage through an employer (COBRA included) you typically have 2 months to join a Medicare Advantage plan. While there are many special circumstances that may qualify for Special Enrollment, here is a quick summary of the main conditions that meet Special Enrollment criteria:
Move to a new address, move back into the country or move into or out of a nursing home or assisted living facility.
No longer being eligible for Medicaid or extra help, or losing employer coverage.
Have your current Part C plan terminated by Medicare or not renewed.
Reviewing Coverage and Switching Medicare Advantage Plans
When the goal is to spend the least amount of money for the most amount of coverage, you owe it to yourself to get the best deal you can with Medicare Part C. Initial Enrollment is usually the best time to sign up, but once you have coverage, Annual Enrollment (Oct 15 – Dec 7) is a great time to make changes to an existing plan or switch between plans. If you miss the December 7 deadline, you can still drop your current Medicare Advantage plan and return to Original Medicare during Medicare Advantage Dis enrollment (Jan 1 – Feb 14).
If you leave your plan and return to Original Medicare, you have until February 14 to join a prescription drug plan. However, you may not switch from Original Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan or switch between Medicare Advantage plans during this time.
Even if you think your current Medicare Advantage plan meets your needs, it makes sense to look over new coverage options. Shopping around for better rates and benefits for the upcoming year is a smart way to make sure you’re getting a plan that fits your health care needs and your budget.