Switching Medicare Coverage during Open Enrollment or Disenrollment

By Patricia Barry

Copyright © 2015 AARP

Most people who want to change their Medicare coverage for the following year do so within two standard time frames: the open enrollment period and the disenrollment period. The following discussion explains exactly the types of coverage you can change during these specific terms.

The open enrollment period

Open enrollment is only for people already enrolled in Medicare. When you’re new to the program, you get an enrollment period all of your own according to your personal circumstances.

Open enrollment is actually the one big time each year when all enrollees can play musical chairs with their Medicare coverage. It occurs over an eight-week period that starts October 15 and ends December 7. During this annual window, you’re free to make any of the following changes:

  • Switch from traditional Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan.

  • Go from a Medicare Advantage plan to traditional Medicare.

  • Change from one stand-alone Part D drug plan to another.

  • Transfer from one Medicare Advantage plan to another.

  • Move from a Medicare Advantage plan that doesn’t offer drug coverage to a plan that does, and vice versa.

  • Drop your Medicare drug coverage entirely.

You can also use open enrollment to sign up for Part D coverage (either in a stand-alone Part D drug plan or a Medicare Advantage plan) for the first time if you didn’t sign up when you were supposed to.

Open enrollment gives you the chance to compare the Part D and Medicare Advantage plans that will be offered for the coming calendar year. Details of these plans are posted on Medicare’s plan finder website starting on October 1. Although open enrollment finishes at midnight on December 7, coverage in your existing plan continues until midnight on December 31.

If you switch plans during open enrollment, your coverage in the new plan begins January 1. You don’t need to inform Medicare or your existing plan of the change; enrolling in a new plan automatically cancels the old one.

If you want to stay with the plan you already have, you don’t need to do anything. Your current enrollment continues into next year. However, the plan’s coverage and costs may change from year to year.

The disenrollment period

The name sounds odd, but it accurately describes this term’s purpose. The six-week period between January 1 and February 14 each year gives you another chance to drop out of a Medicare Advantage plan and switch to traditional Medicare — but not vice versa. Here are key points to note:

  • You can use this period to disenroll from any Medicare Advantage plan regardless of whether you’ve been in it for a few days or several years.

  • If you disenroll in January, your new coverage starts February 1. If you do so during the first two weeks of February, coverage starts March 1.

  • If the plan you’re dropping included drug coverage, you can also use this period to sign up with a stand-alone Part D plan.

  • You can’t use this period to sign up for drug coverage for the first time.

  • You may buy a Medigap policy during this period, but you don’t have the right to buy it with federal guarantees and protections unless this period happens to coincide with a time frame when you do have those rights or unless your state law gives additional protection.

If you drop out of a Medicare Advantage plan that includes drug coverage, just enrolling in a stand-alone Part D drug plan automatically cancels your MA enrollment and triggers medical coverage under traditional Medicare. Otherwise, you need to request disenrollment from your current MA plan.