Retirement


Survive the Medicare Enrollment Maze

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the June 2012 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.

Enrolling in Medicare for the first time is a cinch for most seniors. Several months before your 65th birthday, the federal government sends you a "You're Eligible!" notice. You're automatically enrolled if you're getting Social Security benefits. Otherwise, you send in your application by the due date.

Mission accomplished!

But for a growing number of seniors, Medicare enrollment is a mission to bureaucratic hell. The rules can be perplexing for individuals who retire early or stick with their employer health plan after they turn 65 -- especially if their spouse is covered by their employer plan. It's easy to inadvertently miss an enrollment deadline. The possible consequences: months without insurance coverage and a lifetime of penalties.

SEE ALSO: Special Report on Navigating Medicare

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Joe Baker, president of the Medicare Rights Center, an advocacy group, says confusion over enrollment rules is rising as people work longer, layoffs increase and dual-income families become more common. "It's no longer 65 and then you retire," he says. Corporate benefits managers sometimes are little help. "Folks are misinformed and uninformed about Medicare rules," he says.

Over the years, Kiplinger's Retirement Report has heard from many readers who have been tripped up by Medicare enrollment rules. To help avert further calamities, we're answering some of the most common questions regarding the interaction of Medicare with workplace coverage, including COBRA benefits, corporate retiree health coverage and federal health plans. A great resource is the Web site of the Medicare Rights Center at www.medicarerights.org. You also can call its helpline at 800-333-4114.

First, the basics: You are eligible for premium-free Part A, which pays for hospital services, if either you or your spouse paid Medicare payroll taxes for at least ten years. If neither you nor your spouse meets the ten-year test, you can buy into Part A for $248 a month if you or your spouse worked at least 7.5 years in Medicare-covered employment. If neither you nor your spouse meets that test, the premium jumps to $451 a month. If you decide not to pay for Part A, you can still enroll in Part B, which pays for physician services.

If you are getting Social Security benefits when you turn 65, you will be automatically enrolled in Part A and Part B. Because you must pay a monthly premium for Part B ($99.90 for most people in 2012), you can turn it down. Follow the directions when you get your Medicare card to let the government know that you do not want Part B. Otherwise, the premium will be deducted from your Social Security payment.

You need to sign up yourself for Parts A and B if you have not started Social Security benefits by the time you turn 65. You should enroll in Medicare when you're first eligible 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. It's best to enroll during the first three months; otherwise, your coverage won't begin until after you turn 65.

An alternative is to sign up for a private Medicare Advantage plan during your initial enrollment period. An Advantage plan generally includes drug coverage, provides Part A and Part B, and covers many co-payments and deductibles as well.

If you don't sign up for Part B during your initial enrollment period, you will need to wait until the "general enrollment period" from January 1 to March 31. Your coverage will begin on July 1. You will have to pay a 10% penalty for life for each 12-month period you delay in signing up for Part B. (If you're still working, you can sign up during a "special enrollment period" -- but we'll get to that later.) The general enrollment period for Medicare Advantage is October 15 to December 7.

You must have Parts A and B to buy a private Medigap supplemental insurance plan, which pays co-payments, deductibles and many other expenses that traditional Medicare doesn't cover. You have six months after you enroll in Part B to buy any Medigap policy regardless of your health condition. "You're only allowed one guaranteed-issue period," says Paul Gada, personal financial planning director of Allsup, in Belleville, Ill., whose Medicare Advisor service helps individuals choose health plans. After that, he says, an insurer can reject you or charge you more if you have a medical condition.

Moving beyond the basics, the information in this Q&A should help you navigate the Medicare enrollment maze.

I am turning 65 and still working. My wife and I have coverage from my employer, and we'd like to remain on that plan. Do I need to enroll in Medicare? How about my wife, who turns 65 in a year? The answer depends in part on the size of your employer.

If your employer has 20 or more employees, neither you nor your wife has to enroll in Part B while you are still working. You should both enroll in Part A as soon as you are eligible because it's free, although your employer's insurance will be your primary coverage.

When you leave your job, you and your wife (as long as she is at least 65) can enroll in Part B without penalty during a special enrollment period, which lasts for eight months after you stop working. To avoid a coverage gap, enroll in Medicare a month or so before your employer coverage ends. If you miss your special enrollment period, you will need to wait until the next general enrollment period on January 1 to enroll in Part B and possibly pay late-enrollment penalties.

If you change your mind while you're still working, you can drop your employer coverage and enroll in Part B. You will not owe the 10% late-enrollment penalty as long as you are working and covered by an employer plan up to the time you enroll.

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