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Enrolling in Medicare at the Right Time for You

Part of the Medicare For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Copyright © 2014 AARP. All rights reserved.

The right time for Medicare enrollment depends on your circumstances. But if you don't enroll in Medicare at the right time for you and then you try to enroll later, you risk permanent Medicare late penalties and a delay in coverage. Here are your options for enrolling in Medicare (without penalties) for the first time at age 65 or later:

  • Initial enrollment period (IEP): Your IEP lasts seven months — from three months before the month in which you turn 65 to three months after that month. (For example, if your birthday is in September, your IEP begins June 1 and ends December 31.) Sign up for Medicare during this time frame if you don't qualify for the special enrollment period.

  • Special enrollment period (SEP): You qualify for this SEP if you're beyond 65, have group health insurance from an employer for whom you or your spouse actively works, and the employer has 20 or more employees. If you meet these conditions, you can delay Medicare enrollment after turning 65. The SEP lasts throughout the time you have this coverage and extends for eight months after it ends or the employment ends — whichever comes first. For example, if you stop work at the end of February, you can enroll in Medicare without risking late penalties until your SEP ends on October 31 — but to avoid a gap in coverage, you'd probably want to enroll in February so that your Medicare benefits begin March 1.

  • Automatic enrollment: If you start receiving retirement benefits from Social Security or the Railroad Retirement Board, you'll be enrolled automatically in Medicare Parts A and B at age 65 or later instead of having to apply. You can decline Part B enrollment if you want to delay it because you qualify for an SEP, as described in the preceding bullet.

  • General enrollment period (GEP): This GEP allows you to sign up for Medicare if you failed to do so during your IEP or SEP. It lasts for three months each year, from January 1 to March 31. If you sign up during a GEP, your Medicare coverage doesn't begin until the following July 1. You may also be hit with late penalties that are added to your Part B premiums for all future years.

Note: Medicare offers other enrollment periods that allow you to change your coverage in certain circumstances. Also, some people — for example, those who are younger than 65 or who aren't American citizens — may have to meet different rules and/or time frames.

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