Although the full retirement age to maximize benefits is currently 67 years old, most healthy retirees can begin accessing Medicare once they turn 65.
Navigating Medicare can get tricky — especially if you have a spouse or had inconsistent employment over the years. Under current guidance, you may even be penalized with fees for delaying social security payment and not being enrolled in Medicare (a measure to address this is currently sitting in Congress). What’s more, you may need to carefully consider the exact type of coverage you need and adjust accordingly once you’re eligible.
Medicare can be an exceptionally cost-saving way to access health care post-retirement, but there are various strategies to consider to get the most out of the system. Here are four ways to maximize your Medicare.
Get premium-free Medicare Part A as soon as possible
Historically, Medicare and Social Security benefits came concurrently. However, after the full benefits age for Social Security increased in past years, you can now continue working for a few years past age 65 while still getting premium-free Medicare Part A.
You can qualify for premium-free Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) under the following conditions:
- You are at least 65 years old
- You’re eligible to receive Social Security benefits but haven’t filed to receive them yet
- Either you or your spouse previously had (or currently have) Medicare-covered government employment
Premium-free Medicare Part A enrollment is automatic once you retire at 65 or older. However, if you plan to maximize your Social Security benefits, you’ll need to contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) and ask to enroll. Assuming you meet the eligibility requirements, you should receive the requisite paperwork to enroll and receive Medicare Part A.
Find the most cost-effective supplement coverage
Medicare is a good foundation for retirees who need to save money, but it’s far from exhaustive. Most retirees eventually hit situations where their Medicare coverage doesn’t cover certain expenses. Without additional Medicare Supplement coverage to cover those expenses, you would likely have to pay the full cost for care out of pocket.
Medicare Supplement plans (also known as Medigap) are offered by private insurance companies and are Medicare-approved. Because the most cost-effective plans can change each year, you may need to review a variety of plan options during the enrollment period.
Medigap shopping is not just important for yourself; you can save money by buying different Medicare Supplement plans for your spouse. Examine the available plans and pick the ones that make the most sense for each of you. Quite often, spouses’ medical care needs differ, so you shouldn’t need to choose the same coverage plans.
Ask for a premium reduction once you retire
As wonderful as it is to receive premium-free Medicare Part A, all other Medicare plans (B, C and D) require premium payments of some kind. These premium costs are typically low compared to what you may have paid for insurance prior to retirement, but if you are what the SSA considers a “higher-income beneficiary,” your Medicare premiums will be higher.
This situation may well be the case if you enroll in Medicare at 65 and before you retire. Once you retire, you can save money and reduce your premiums by contacting the SSA and asking for a premium reduction.
The SSA determines your premium costs based on the taxes you filed from the year before last. (essentially, two years ago). Consequently, that means that if you retire this year, you might be paying higher Medicare premiums for two years before the SSA’s premium qualification method determines you deserve a decrease in your premium cost. Instead of waiting around for the SSA to catch up, be proactive and make the call to help save yourself money.
Sign up for Medicare Part C
Medicare Part A is typically premium-free for most recipients, while Medicare Part B (medical insurance) and Part D (drug coverage) are offered for a premium. As an alternative, you may want to consider Medicare Part C. Also known as Medicare Advantage, this option on average can cost between $7-$57 per month, based on providers.
These plans are offered by a private insurance company instead of the federal government. However, they’re required to follow strict rules from the federal government to participate in the coverage.
That said, there are of course limits. Medicare Advantage plans quite often have very limited networks. If you go out of network, your plan may not cover any of the expenses or may require you to pay a large percentage of the cost for care. It’s also possible that you’ll have a harder time finding care facilities that accept an Advantage plan.
Before trying to determine if the Medicare Advantage plan is right for you, consider your available doctor network, the impact of coinsurance and copayments on your plan’s potential costs, the benefits of the plan and consumer reviews of the plans being offered.
Regardless of the route you take, retirement ultimately means you’ll need to switch from an employer-sponsored health care plan. More Medicare coverage ultimately means paying more out of pocket, but navigating your way around your coverage options can significantly reduce how much you pay during your retirement years.
Maxime Rieman is product manager at ValuePenguin. Educating and assisting shoppers about financial products has been Rieman's focus, which led her to joining ValuePenguin, a consumer research and advice company based in New York. Previously, she was product marketing director at CoverWallet and launched the personal insurance team at NerdWallet.
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