Medicare has several key periods during which a person can sign up for or change their coverage.
Knowing these dates is important for researching plans, saving costs, and signing up in time.
This article details the key time periods for enrolling in or switching Medicare plans.
The Initial Enrollment Period is a 7-month time frame during which a person can first sign up for Medicare.
A person is eligible to enroll when they reach 65 years of age. The Initial Enrollment Period spans the following times:
- 3 months before reaching 65 years of age
- the month of a person’s 65th birthday
- 3 months after reaching 65 years of age
Many people will receive automatic enrollment in Medicare. This is true for those who receive benefits from the Social Security Administration or Railroad Retirement Board.
However, if a person does not receive these benefits, they can sign up online at the Social Security Administration website or in person at their local Social Security office.
Waiting to sign up in the months after reaching 65 years of age can delay the start of a person’s Medicare coverage. Also, a person may be subject to a late enrollment penalty if they wait beyond 3 months after their 65th birthday to sign up.
During the Initial Enrollment Period, a person can sign up for traditional Medicare, which can include parts A, B, and D.
They can also sign up for Part C, or Medicare Advantage. This is a bundled plan that includes coverage from parts A and B. It may also provide additional coverage, such as vision care or prescription drugs.
A person can sign up for Medicare Part D during this period if they have traditional Medicare or if their Advantage plan does not cover prescription medications.
The General Enrollment Period is one of many different periods that open throughout the year. During these times, a person can change their Medicare coverage to a different plan.
This period runs from January 1 to March 31 every year. During the General Enrollment Period, a person can:
- sign up for traditional Medicare, even if they did not during their Initial Enrollment Period
- switch their Medicare Advantage plan to a different one
- switch from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare
However, a person cannot switch from traditional Medicare to Medicare Advantage during this time. They can only make one change during this time period.
When a person enrolls in Medicare during the General Enrollment Period, their coverage will usually start on July 1.
Other changes to coverage for those who already have Medicare usually start the following month or sooner.
The Medicare Open Enrollment Period runs from October 15 to December 7 every year. Some people also call this the Annual Enrollment Period.
This period usually provides the best opportunity to change plans. A person can assess their coverage from the previous year to determine whether or not they could benefit from expanded or less costly coverage.
A person’s State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) can help them evaluate their options.
During the Open Enrollment Period, a person can:
- switch from traditional Medicare to Medicare Advantage
- switch from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare
- switch from one Medicare Advantage plan to another
- add or remove Part D coverage for prescription medications
These changes are usually effective starting in January of the following year.
Private companies administer both Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D plans.
Switching plans usually involves signing up with a new Medicare Advantage provider. If a person’s new Medicare Advantage plan offers a drug plan, they will have to drop their previous Part D policy.
If a person is moving from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare, they can sign up by calling 1-800-MEDICARE.
If a person is happy with their current Medicare coverage, however, they do not have to make any changes. Their current Medicare plan will renew on January 1.
Medicare rates Advantage plans by stars and updates these scores regularly.
This allows people to make decisions on the most effective private insurer from whom to buy an Advantage plan. The highest rating is five stars, meaning that the service it provides is excellent.
A person can switch to a five-star Medicare Advantage plan between December 8 and November 30 of the following year if their current plan does not have five stars. Making this additional enrollment improves public access to high-quality plans.
Medicare measures plans by several factors, including:
- how many people typically leave a plan in a year
- the members’ ratings of the plan
- how well the plan covers chronic health conditions
Five-star plans are subject to availability, as not every region or city has providers that offer them. A person can search for five-star Medicare Advantage plans using Medicare’s Plan Finder.
Sometimes, a person can qualify for a Special Enrollment Period (SEP). People can sign up for Part A and Part B during this period, which usually lasts 8 months.
People become eligible for a SEP if their employer healthcare plan or period of employment ends. The period starts in the month following the end of employment or an employer insurance plan.
A person can contact Medicare directly to make sure they qualify for the SEP.
A person can make changes to their Medicare plan for many reasons, such as saving money, expanding coverage, or due to changing circumstances.
Understanding the enrollment windows can help people avoid penalties and keep the cost of their plans low.
A person can find out more about available Medicare plans by looking at the online plan finder, calling Medicare (1-800-MEDICARE), or contacting the local SHIP.
- 5-star special enrollment period. (n.d.). https://www.medicare.gov/sign-up-change-plans/when-can-i-join-a-health-or-drug-plan/5-star-special-enrollment-period
- Don’t wait: Medicare Advantage Open enrollment ends March 31. (n.d.). https://www.medicare.gov/blog/medicare-advantage-open-enrollment-2020
- Join, switch, or drop a Medicare Advantage plan. (n.d.). https://www.medicare.gov/sign-up-change-plans/types-of-medicare-health-plans/medicare-advantage-plans/join-switch-or-drop-a-medicare-advantage-plan
- Medicare Open Enrollment. (2020). https://www.cms.gov/Outreach-and-Education/Reach-Out/Find-tools-to-help-you-help-others/Medicare-Open-Enrollment
- When does Medicare coverage start? (n.d.) https://www.medicare.gov/basics/get-started-with-medicare/sign-up/when-does-medicare-coverage-start