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Enrolling for Medicare: Know When to Sign Up

The Medicare Initial Enrollment Period is a seven-month period that starts three months before the month you turn 65, the month you turn 65, and three months after the month you turn 65.

When to sign up for Medicare

If you’re collecting Social Security benefits when you turn 65, you’ll automatically be signed up for Medicare Part A (hospital coverage) and Part B (medical insurance for things like doctor visits, lab tests and X-rays). If you don’t receive Medicare automatically, first-time Medicare beneficiaries can sign up for Part A (hospital insurance, for inpatient care, skilled nursing and hospice care and home health services)and/or Part B (medical insurance for things like doctor visits, lab tests and X-rays) during their 7-month Initial Enrollment Period.

This period starts three months prior to your 65th birthday, includes your birth month, and extends three months after your birth month. It’s important to enroll during this seven-month window. If you don’t, you may have to wait until the next general enrollment period (January 1 – March 31) and you may incur late fees that could impact you for years—potentially the entire time you’re enrolled in Medicare.

The cost of Medicare coverage

For most people, Medicare Part A comes with no cost if they or their spouse worked 10 years and paid Medicare taxes. People who did not work a minimum of 10 years may still obtain Medicare Part A coverage but may have to pay a monthly premium for the benefits. That amount is determined by Social Security.

If you or your spouse are still working when you turn 65 and have health insurance through your employer, you may be able to delay signing up for Part B without incurring a penalty. In many cases (though not all) the benefits you’re offered through work provides the similar coverage for outpatient medical care. Before you make a final decision, call your employer’s benefits department to see if that coverage is sufficient and for information on how it might work with Medicare Part D, separate Medicare plans that provide coverage for prescription drugs.

Watch out for penalties

If you turn down or delay your enrollment in Part B, you may have to pay a 10 percent Part B premium penalty for each 12-month period for which you qualified but delayed enrollment. This penalty would begin once you enroll in Part B. If you didn’t sign up for Medicare Part B because you had a work-based health insurance policy, you’ll have eight months to sign up before incurring a late penalty. After you’ve enrolled in Medicare Part A and Part B, you can enhance your coverage with a Medicare Supplement Insurance (Medigap) policy and a Medicare Part D Prescription Drug plan. Or, you may choose to get all your Medicare benefits through a Medicare Advantage (Part C) plan, with or without prescription drug coverage.