9 Frequently Asked Questions about Medicare

Copyright © 2014 AARP. All rights reserved.

Here is an overview of the Medicare program: addressing common concerns about how Medicare is different from other types of health insurance; describing the four parts of Medicare coverage (A, B, C, and D); and providing a checklist for the decisions that you have to make in choosing among the coverage options that Medicare offers.

When the prospect of becoming a Medicare beneficiary looms on the horizon, you suddenly become aware — if you’re like most people — of how little you know about the program. And even if you think you know, can you be sure that the information you have is accurate?

Based on the questions most frequently asked, it seems a lot of perceptions about Medicare are way off base; quite often, they’re gleaned from the Internet or even mass e-mails that are deliberately designed to spread misleading information and scare seniors.

But if you’ve had health insurance in the past, especially from an employer, you may naturally be nervous about how Medicare coverage compares with it.

  1. As a government-run system, will Medicare give me inferior care?

    No (or at least, not inherently). The federal government runs and regulates Medicare and also largely pays for the medical services you use. Even so, those actual services are almost wholly private. The doctors you go to are not government employees; the hospitals and laboratories that provide services to you are not government-owned.

    Instead, they’re free to enter or not enter into contracts with Medicare as they choose. Those who accept you as a Medicare patient are the same kind of independent, private practitioners that you would’ve seen for diagnosis and treatment before coming into Medicare.

  2. Will Medicare allow me fewer choices than I have now?

    No. In fact, the reverse may be true. If you’ve had health insurance from a private employer, for example, you probably had only two or three plans to choose from each year.

    In contrast, Medicare offers a choice between the traditional program (in which you can go to any doctor or other provider in the United States that accepts Medicare patients) and a variety of private Medicare Advantage health plans, which are likely similar to health plans you may have known in the past.

    Depending on where you live, you may be overwhelmed by the number of options; in some areas, as many as 50 different Medicare Advantage plans are available. Also, at least 25 private Part D plans in each state offer Medicare prescription drug coverage.

  3. Will my health issues and preexisting medical conditions work against me?

    Current and past health problems don’t bar anybody from Medicare coverage or cause anybody to pay higher premiums or co-pays than somebody who is in perfect health. That kind of discrimination, so common in the past in private health insurance, has never existed in Medicare.

    The one exception is that people with advanced kidney failure can’t enroll in a Medicare Advantage health plan; however, they still receive coverage for the appropriate care — regular dialysis or a kidney transplant — under the traditional Medicare program. (For the record: A history of smoking, alcohol use, or obesity doesn’t increase rates either.)

  4. Will Medicare be less expensive than the insurance I have now?

    Medicare isn’t free. Just like other insurance, it requires monthly premiums, deductibles, and co-pays that you’re responsible for paying unless you qualify for a low-income program or have extra insurance that covers these costs. However, you need to consider the alternatives. Without Medicare, most older and disabled people wouldn’t be able to find affordable insurance on the open market.

    Compared to most employer insurance (which as a whole covers younger and healthier people), Medicare is reasonably priced. In 2013, Medicare Part B premiums at the standard rate cost $104.90 per month per person, whereas workers’ monthly contributions to employer insurance averaged $83.25 for a single person and $380 for a family of two or more, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s survey of employer health benefits.

    Still, this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison; many employees pay more than these averages for health benefits, and Medicare beneficiaries usually pay extra for drug coverage, while those with higher incomes pay more than the standard premiums.

  5. Will I pay a large deductible before getting Medicare coverage?

    Medicare does have some deductibles, but they’re relatively small compared with the ones many people pay in high-deductible health plans that are sponsored by employers or bought on the open insurance market.

  6. Will my out-of-pocket expenses be capped in Medicare?

    Not necessarily. Traditional Medicare sets no limit on the costs you pay out of pocket during a year, although you may buy Medigap insurance to cover those costs. But all Medicare Advantage plans are required by law to set caps on these expenses (up to $6,700 per year, but some plans have lower limits).

    And in the Part D program, after you’ve spent a certain amount out of pocket on your prescription drugs in a year, you qualify for catastrophic coverage that greatly lowers your costs for the remainder of the calendar year.

  7. Do I have to sign up for Medicare again every year?

    No; your coverage just rolls over from year to year unless you decide to change it. But you do have the opportunity to change your coverage if you want to during the open enrollment period that runs from October 15 to December 7 each year.

    During this time, you can switch from traditional Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan (or vice versa), from one Medicare Advantage plan to another, or from one Part D prescription drug plan to another.

  8. Will Medicare cover my younger spouse or other dependents?

    No. Family coverage doesn’t exist in Medicare — not for spouses, dependent children, or other family members. Each person must wait until age 65 to join the program unless he qualifies through disability at a younger age.

    Also, if you and your spouse are both in Medicare, each of you must pay premiums separately and in full unless you receive government assistance to help pay for them. Medicare doesn’t give price breaks for married couples, even in its private Medicare Advantage health plans and Part D drug plans.

  9. Will Medicare coverage be cut off when I grow old?

    No! Medicare coverage is based on medical necessity, not age. So if you need a hip replacement when you’re in your 90s or even over 100, Medicare picks up most of the cost in the usual way.

    The idea of Medicare rationing care and denying coverage for people over a certain age has been spread through mass e-mails designed to discredit the 2010 Affordable Care Act (commonly called ObamaCare). In fact, the act doesn’t cut Medicare benefits or allow rationing, and no Medicare regulation limits care for people based on their age.

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