Medicare has fixed dates for enrolling in its plans. From initial enrollment to policy changes, there are periods throughout the year during which a person can make changes to their current Medicare plan.

A person may move out of an area and find that services provided in their new region fall outside of their existing network of doctors. Or, they may wish to adjust which medications the plan covers or move to a policy that better suits their healthcare and lifestyle needs.

This article explores the enrollment periods for each part of Medicare.

Glossary of Medicare terms

We may use a few terms in this article that can be helpful to understand when selecting the best insurance plan:

  • Deductible: This is an annual amount that a person must spend out of pocket within a certain time period before an insurer starts to fund their treatments.
  • Coinsurance: This is a percentage of a treatment cost that a person will need to self-fund. For Medicare Part B, this comes to 20%.
  • Copayment: This is a fixed dollar amount that an insured person pays when receiving certain treatments. For Medicare, this usually applies to prescription drugs.
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A person can make changes to their current Medicare plan during certain periods throughout the year.

Medicare Advantage is a bundled, privately administered plan that includes parts A and B. Some Advantage policies offer other benefits, such as prescription medication cover.

A person who wants to switch from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare or vice versa can do so during:

The General Enrollment Period: January 1–March 31

This is the Medicare Advantage General Enrollment Period. During this time, a person can switch from Medicare to Medicare Advantage.

However, they cannot switch the other way round during this window. If a person signs up for traditional Medicare during the General Enrollment Period, coverage will start on July 1.

The Open Enrollment Period: October 15–December 7

This time period is the Open Enrollment Period for Medicare.

During this time, a person can change from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare and vice versa. They can also switch to a different Medicare Advantage plan.

A person can also join a Medicare Part D plan at this time to continue receiving drug coverage.

Special Enrollment Periods

Medicare outlines certain circumstances that trigger Special Enrollment Periods (SEPs). During these windows, a person can switch between different Medicare Advantage plans or return to traditional Medicare.

Some examples of these enrollment periods include moving to a new address outside of an Advantage plan’s service area or losing coverage because Medicare did not renew its contract with a person’s private insurer.

A person has two options for notifying their current plan provider: contacting them or calling Medicare directly.

If a person contacts their plan provider, the administrators will ask them to submit disenrollment paperwork. The insurer will notify Medicare that a person wishes to leave their plan.

Alternatively, Medicare is available on 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227). A person can notify Medicare that they wish to return to a traditional Medicare plan.

Medicare should confirm in writing that a person has switched back to traditional Medicare and when the new coverage should start.

Also known as Medigap, Medicare supplement plans are standardized policies that can help reduce the out-of-pocket costs of Medicare.

Learn more about Medicare supplement plans here.

Private insurers administer these plans, though each must offer the same benefits. There are several to choose from, ranging from A to N. Insurers can no longer sell plans C and F, however.

People can only have Medigap alongside traditional Medicare. They cannot enroll in a Medigap plan if they have Medicare Advantage.

It is possible to switch between Medigap plans at any time, though a person may have to pay a higher premium, or during a one-time Open Enrollment Period.

One-time Open Enrollment Period for Medigap

A person can switch Medigap plans during a one-off, 6-month Open Enrollment Period for Medigap that starts when they are 65 years of age and have a Medicare Part B plan.

This is generally the most cost effective time to switch between Medigap plans. In the Open Enrollment Period for Medigap, an insurance company cannot deny coverage or charge more due to any preexisting health conditions.

At any time

Outside of the Open Enrollment Period, there are no specific dates during which a person can switch Medigap plans.

However, an insurance company has the right to deny a person’s application or charge a higher premium based on preexisting conditions once a person leaves the 6-month Open Enrollment Period.

Therefore, Medigap policies could be more expensive if a person switches outside of the Open Enrollment window.

Guaranteed issue rights

A person may qualify for guaranteed issue rights or Medigap protections.

This means that an insurance company must sell a person a Medigap policy without taking into consideration any present or past health concerns.

A person usually has a guaranteed issue rights if they move from their previous policy’s service area. For example, this will apply to those who relocate and lose coverage from their Medicare Advantage plan.

To switch Medigap policies, a person should apply directly with the private insurer that provides the new plan. If the insurance company accepts their application, they should then notify their current insurance company that they wish to switch.

The new company will provide guidance on submitting a request to end the previous coverage.

When a person gets a new Medigap policy, Medicare entitles them to a “free look period.” This is a 30-day window during which a person can decide if they want to keep their new policy and close their previous one.

A person should not cancel their first Medigap policy until they are sure that the new one is better for them.

If a person has a Medigap and Medicare Part D policy through the same insurer, they will still make separate payments for each policy.

A person will generally change to Medicare Part B if they had previous private insurance through an employer’s plan but are either no longer working, have lost coverage for their spouse, or for another related reason.

In these circumstances, a person is often eligible for a SEP. This means that they can sign up for Medicare Part B at any time due to a change in their insurance status.

To switch to Medicare Part B, a person can call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) and notify Medicare of a change in coverage.

Otherwise, a person can enroll in Medicare Part B during the General Enrollment Period, which runs from January 1 through March 31.

Medicare Part D provides prescription drug coverage for those who qualify for Medicare. Some of the circumstances and times a person may want to switch to Part D drug coverage include:

If they lose coverage from an employer-based health plan or Medicare Advantage

If a person loses their prescription drug coverage, they probably qualify for a SEP. During this time, they can sign up for a new Part D plan.

They should not go more than 63 days without prescription drug coverage. If they do, they may have to pay a penalty.

If they want to switch to a different Part D plan

If this is the case, a person can sign up during the Open Enrollment Period from October 15 to December 7.

If they switch from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare

A person can sign up for Medicare Part D during their Open Enrollment Period for prescription drug coverage, which runs from October 15 to December 7.

Medicare requires that people over 65 years of age have creditable prescription drug coverage. If a person has traditional Medicare, signing up for Medicare Part D is one way to accomplish this.

People can enroll in Medicare Part D by:

  • finding a plan on Medicare’s Plan Finder
  • calling a health insurance company that provides a suitable plan
  • calling Medicare at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227)

If a person has a previous Medicare drug plan, they do not usually have to cancel the old one. The previous coverage will end when a person’s new drug plan begins.

Medicare has different enrollment periods during which insured people can change their plans.

As a general rule, if circumstances lead to a person being without insurance, they may qualify for a SEP outside of the fixed enrollment periods.

Calling Medicare is usually the best approach, as a Medicare agent can explain the different criteria and answer a person’s questions about their individual circumstances.