Right now, millions of American seniors rely on Medicare to help meet their basic health care needs. Medicare offers aging Americans government-funded health care coverage in a variety of areas. These service can include, but not be limited to, hospital care, outpatient medical services, and prescription drugs.

Medicare coverage, however, does not appear out of thin air. Eligible seniors need to enroll in the program. This can be a bit of an undertaking, especially when considering the various ins-and-outs of program rules, and the costs and potential health risks that may result from making mistakes. We are entering into Medicare Open Enrollment. Medicare Open Enrollment is “the annual period during which Medicare plan enrollees can reevaluate their coverage — whether it’s Original Medicare with supplemental drug coverage, or Medicare Advantage — and make changes if they want to do so.”

As we enter into Medicare Open Enrollment, let us share two of the biggest mistakes to avoid.

1. Don’t assume Medicare enrollment is automatic.

Although Medicare is available for people with qualifying disabilities, the vast majority of participants become eligible when they turn 65 years of age.

If you’re receiving Social Security benefits on or before your 65th birthday, then you’ll be automatically enrolled in Medicare Part A and B, known as “Original Medicare.” If not, you’ll have to sign up. If you want Medicare Part D, or prescription drug coverage, you’ll also need to manually enroll as Part D is never automatic.

Keep in mind that just like private insurance, Original Medicare and Medicare Advantage (or Part C) coverage plans can sometimes change, and even be discontinued. It is always a good idea to double-check during Medicare’s annual Open Enrollment period to make sure that your current plan is still available and the best option for you.

2. Don’t wait to sign up for Medicare until you quit working.

It’s a common misunderstanding that seniors don’t have to enroll in Medicare until they retire. It’s understandable given that most Americans receive health insurance through their employers. But if the company you work for has less than 20 full-time employees, program rules require you to sign up during your Initial Enrollment Period.

The Initial Enrollment Period is the first time you’re to sign up for Medicare. It’s a seven-month term beginning three months prior to your 65th birthday month. If you miss this period, you could be hit with costly late penalties. If you’re company has more than 20 full-time employees, however, program rules allow an eight-month Special Enrollment window that begins the day after you leave your job. Miss this, and late penalties can also apply.

We know this article may lead to more questions that need answers. Do not wait to contact our office with your questions on this or any elder law issue today.