What you need to know about signing up for Medicare

The first of the 78 million baby boomers turned 65 on January 1, 2011, and about 10,000 boomers a day will be reaching that age between now and 2030. If you’re among those about to turn 65, then it’s time to think about Medicare.
You become eligible for Medicare as soon as you turn 65, and delaying your enrollment can result in penalties.
Medicare consists of four major programs:
• Part A covers hospital stays.
• Part B covers doctors’ fees.
• Part C allows you to receive additional types of coverage such as vision and dental insurance.
• Part D covers prescription drugs.
The time period for enrolling in Medicare without penalty begins three months before your 65th birthday, and continues for seven months. If you’re currently receiving Social Security benefits, you don’t need to do anything. You’ll automatically be enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B effective the month you turn 65. However, if you’re not currently receiving Social Security benefits, you’ll need to sign up for Medicare by calling the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 (or visiting www.socialsecurity.gov/medicareonly). It’s best to do so as early as possible, so your coverage begins as soon as you turn 65.
If you’re still working and have an employer or union group health insurance plan, you might not need to sign up for Medicare Part B right away. You’ll need to find out from your employer whether the employer’s plan is the primary insurer. If it’s not, then you’ll want to sign up for Part B. Even if you don’t need to sign up for Part B right now, you should still enroll in Part A, which may help pay some of the costs that aren’t covered by your group health plan.
If you don’t have a group health plan, or if that plan is secondary to Medicare, then it’s extremely important to sign up for Medicare Part B during your initial enrollment period. If you don’t sign up for Part B right away, then you’ll be subject to a penalty if you enroll later. Your Part B premium may go up 10 percent for each 12-month period that you could have had Part B coverage but didn’t take it. In addition, you’ll have to wait for the “general enrollment period” to enroll. This period usually runs between January 1 and March 31 of each year.
Medicare also offers Part C, which is sometimes called “Medicare Advantage.” Medicare Advantage consists of private health plans that operate under the Medicare program. You must be enrolled in Parts A and B to join a Medicare Advantage plan. If you do, the plan will provide all of your Part A and Part B coverage, and it may offer extra coverage, such as vision, hearing, dental, and health and wellness programs. (Most such plans also include prescription drug coverage.)
Finally, Part D covers prescription drugs. If you don’t sign up for a Medicare Advantage plan with prescription drug coverage, then you’ll want to enroll in a prescription drug plan at the same time that you sign up for Parts A and B. For every month you delay enrollment past the initial enrollment period, your Medicare Part D premium will increase at least 1 percent. However, you’re exempt from this penalty if you didn’t enroll because you already had drug coverage from a private insurer, such as through a retirement plan, that’s at least as good as Medicare’s. (Your insurer should let you know if its coverage qualifies.)
To find a drug plan in your area, visit the Medicare website at www.medicare.gov/find-a-plan/questions/home.aspx.