How and when to sign up for Medicare

Breaking down enrollment periods, eligibility


Medicare enrollment is automatic for some of us. If you are age 65 and eligible to receive Social Security benefits (or married to someone eligible to receive them), then you are also automatically eligible for Medicare Part A (free hospital insurance) and Medicare Part B (medical insurance for which you pay premiums), also known as “original Medicare”.1

If this is the case, then you’ll get a red-white-and-blue Medicare card in the mail three months before you turn 65.2

Others might need to sign up. You can apply to receive Medicare benefits even if you haven’t retired. If you’re coming up on 65 and you don’t yet receive Social Security benefits, SSDI or benefits from the Railroad Retirement Board, visit your local Social Security Administration office or dial 1-800-772-1213 or go to to determine your eligibility.1,2

If you are eligible, you have the choice of accepting or rejecting Part B coverage. If you want Medicare Part A and Medicare Part B, then you should sign your Medicare card and keep it in your wallet. If you don’t want Part B, you put an “X” in the refusal box on the back of the Medicare card form, and send the form to the address shown right below where your signature goes. About four weeks later, you will get a new Medicare card indicating that you only have Part A coverage.3

When you are enrolled in Medicare Part A & Part B (sometimes called “original Medicare”), you can join a Medicare Advantage plan (Part C). Anyone enrolled in Part A, B or C becomes eligible for prescription drug coverage (Part D).1

If you are 65 or older and aren’t eligible for Medicare Part A, you can still sign up for Part B as long as you are a U.S. citizen or a legal resident of this country for five years or longer.1

If you choose not to enroll in Part B during your initial enrollment period, you have another annual chance to sign up for it during a “general enrollment period” from Jan. 1 through March 31, with Part B coverage commencing July 1.1

If you already have medical insurance through a group health plan at your workplace or your spouse’s workplace, you can either enroll in Part B while you are still covered by that plan or enroll in Part B within eight months of leaving your job or losing your health coverage, whichever happens first.1

When can you add or drop forms of Medicare coverage? Medicare has enrollment periods that allow you to do this.

  • The initial enrollment period is seven months long. It starts three months before the month in which you turn 65 and ends three months after that month. You can enroll in any type of Medicare coverage within this seven-month window — Part A, Part B, Part C (Medicare Advantage Plan) and Part D (prescription drug coverage). If you don’t sign up for Part D coverage during the initial enrollment period, you might have to pay a penalty to add it later.4
  •  Once enrolled in Medicare, you can only make changes in coverage during certain periods of time. For example, the annual enrollment period for Part D is Oct. 15 through Dec. 7, with Part D coverage starting Jan. 1. (You can also drop Part D coverage, leave one Part C plan for another, or switch from a Part C plan to original Medicare or vice versa in this period.)4
  • There is also an annual open enrollment period from Jan. 1 through Feb. 14. During this one, you can switch out of a Part C plan and go back to original Medicare with Part A & B coverage starting on the first day of the month following that switch. If you do this, you have until Feb. 14 to also join a Part D plan if you want to add drug coverage to complement Parts A and B. Part D coverage kicks in at the start of the month after the Part D plan receives your enrollment form.4

There are some special situations. Individuals with end-stage kidney failure who need dialysis or a transplant may qualify for Medicare regardless of age. Upon diagnosis, they can contact the SSA. Medicare coverage usually takes effect three months after a patient begins dialysis. People with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) are automatically enrolled in Medicare as soon as they begin receiving SSDI payments. Americans who are under 65 and disabled also qualify for Medicare.2,3

Do you have questions about your eligibility, or that of your parents? Your first stop should be the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 or You can also visit and

Todd Kockelman may be reached at 651-204-0655 or [email protected]

1. (9/25/12)
2. (2/27/13)
3. (2012)
4. (10/12)