Taking Medicare in 2017? Here's What You Need to Know

By Dan Caplinger Markets Fool.com

Most Americans become eligible for Medicare when they turn 65, and every year, millions of people get added to Medicare's rolls. If you expect to be one of them in 2017, you'll want the information you need in order to enroll and get the Medicare benefits that you've earned over the course of your career. Below, we'll look more closely at what it takes to enroll in Medicare and what you should know looking ahead.

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How can I apply for Medicare?

Medicare has done everything it can to make the application process as simple as possible. The easiest way to apply for Medicare is through an online application. The Social Security Administration website has a page specifically designed to allow participants to apply for benefits, and on that page, you'll find a button that will allow you to apply for Medicare only, rather than filing for Social Security benefits simultaneously. If it so happens that you want to apply for Social Security at the same time that you start Medicare, that's also an option.

Note that if you're already getting Social Security benefits, then the online Medicare application process won't be available. Instead, you can call the SSA toll-free at 1-800-772-1213 on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., or visit a local Social Security office in person.

When's the right time to apply for Medicare?

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To file a Medicare application, you need to be at least 64 years and nine months old. That's because the initial enrollment period for Medicare begins three months before your 65th birthday and extends three months after you turn 65.

The primary reason why enrolling during this period is so important is that doing so ensures that you won't have to pay any sort of penalties for enrolling late. In particular, penalties for medical coverage under Medicare Part B and prescription drug coverage under Medicare Part D can apply if you wait beyond your first available opportunity to enroll.

In addition, applying for Medicare before you turn 65 ensures that your coverage will take effect as soon as possible after you become eligible. By contrast, if you wait until after your 65th birthday, then your coverage might be delayed for as long as three months after you sign up.

However, if you're still working or have access to a group health plan through a spouse's employer, then you may not have to enroll in Medicare right when you turn 65. Typically, when your outside group health plan coverage ends, you'll be able to sign up for Medicare penalty-free during a special enrollment period. In some cases, though, your employer will require you to sign up for Medicare even if you're still covered, so you'll want to discuss the matter with your HR department in order to make sure you're doing the right thing.

Should you sign up for Medicare Advantage?

It's not enough just to sign up for Medicare. You also have to decide which type of Medicare coverage you want. Traditional Medicare is one option, but the other is known as Medicare Advantage, or Medicare Part C. Traditional Medicare is paid through the federal government, while Medicare Advantage works with private insurers that offer insurance coverage similar to what Medicare offers. In many cases, you'll find some distinctions in the way that Medicare Advantage plans provide coverage, and many such plans also include prescription drug coverage within a single policy. That prevents you from having to get Part D coverage, although you can do so in lieu of a Medicare Advantage-provided drug plan if you want.

The question of whether traditional Medicare or a Medicare Advantage plan is better for you is complex, but it depends in general on your health and how certain conditions are covered by the Medicare Advantage plan. Evaluating your options can save you a lot of money in out-of-pocket expenses if you choose wisely.

What to do after you get your Medicare benefits

Finally, there are certain things that Medicare encourages new participants to do when they get their coverage. Participants are entitled to a preventive visit within the first 12 months of coverage, and the intent of that visit is to establish a starting point against which you and your doctor can compare your health condition in the future.

If you plan to take Medicare in 2017, be sure you know what the program will give you. That way, you can make smart decisions about your coverage and make the most of the healthcare benefits you've earned.

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