Medicare Basics

Basics of Medicare Made Easy

The Basics of Medicare

 

Contrary to popular belief, Medicare is not free, and it’s important to understand the ins and outs of Medicare before you sign up. Making the wrong choices can be expensive.

Even if you’ve been on Medicare for years, you may want to re-evaluate your options annually to make sure you’ve got the right plan. The annual open enrollment period, during which you can switch Medicare plans, runs Oct. 15 through Dec. 7.

It’s especially important to re-evaluate your options if you have a Medicare Part D drug plan or a Medicare Advantage plan because those plans can change significantly from year to year, dropping and adding drugs and doctors or changing copays and deductibles. “Even if they’re completely happy with their plan, they have to look because things change,” says Diane J. Omdahl, founder and Medicare expert at 65 Incorporated, which helps people choose Medicare coverage.

Medicare is the federal health insurance program for people who are 65 or older, certain younger people with disabilities, and people with End-Stage Renal Disease (permanent kidney failure requiring dialysis or a transplant, sometimes called ESRD). If you or your spouse have worked full time for 10 or more years over a lifetime, you are probably eligible to receive Medicare Part A for free. If you have to buy Part A, you’ll pay up to $413 each month.

Part A covers inpatient hospital stays, care in a skilled nursing facility, hospice care, and some home health care. What Medicare covers is based upon, Federal and state laws, National coverage decisions made by Medicare about whether something is covered, local coverage decisions made by companies in each state that process claims for Medicare. These companies decide whether something is medically necessary and should be covered in their area.

Medicare Part B is available at a monthly rate set annually by Congress ($134 in 2017 for incomes $85000.00 or less for an individual). Part B covers certain doctors’ services, outpatient care, medical supplies, and preventive services. Some seniors are eligible to receive the medical insurance portion (Part B) free as well, depending on their income and asset levels. For more information, inquire about the Qualified Medicare Beneficiary (QMB), Special Low Income Medicare Beneficiary (SLMB), and Qualifying Individual programs through your county social services office.

Remember, in most cases, if you don’t sign up for Part B when you are first eligible, you will have to pay a late enrollment penalty for as long as you have Part B. Your monthly premium for Part B may go up 10% for each full 12-month period that you could have had Part B, but didn’t sign up for it. Also, you may have to wait until the General Enrollment Period (from January 1 to March 31) to enroll in Part B, and coverage will start July 1 of that year. Usually, you don’t pay a late enrollment penalty if you meet certain conditions that allow you to sign up for Part B during a Special Enrollment Period.

Medicare Part C (Medicare Advantage Plans) are a type of Medicare health plan offered by a private insurance company that contracts with Medicare to provide you with all your Part A and Part B benefits. Medicare Advantage Plans include Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO’s), Preferred Provider Organizations (PPO’s), Private Fee-for-Service Plans (PFFS’s), Special Needs Plans (SNP’s), and Medicare Medical Savings Account Plans (MSA’s). If you’re enrolled in a Medicare Advantage Plan, most Medicare services are covered through the plan and are not paid for under Original Medicare. Most Medicare Advantage Plans have prescription drug coverage included.

Medicare Part D (prescription drug coverage) adds prescription drug coverage to Original Medicare, some Medicare Cost Plans, some Medicare Private-Fee-for-Service Plans, and Medicare Medical Savings Account Plans. These plans are offered by insurance companies and other private companies approved by Medicare.

Medicare Advantage Plans may also offer prescription drug coverage that follows the same rules as Medicare Prescription Drug Plans. Keep in mind, you may owe a late enrollment penalty if you go without a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan (Part D), or without a Medicare Advantage Plan (Part C) (like an HMO or PPO) or other Medicare health plan that offers Medicare prescription drug coverage, or without creditable prescription drug coverage for any continuous period of 63 days or more after your Initial Enrollment Period is over.

The first big decision Medicare beneficiaries needs to make is whether to go with traditional Medicare (parts A, B with many people also adding drug coverage with Part D and supplemental coverage with a Medigap plan) or a Medicare Advantage plan (Part C). Medicare Advantage plans can have low or no monthly premiums, but they usually require members to get their care only from network doctors and hospitals. Both options have deductibles, copays and coinsurance, where you pay a percentage of the bill.

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