Don't miss out on Medicare's General Enrollment Period

Well, here we are, in the middle of the annual General Enrollment Period (GEP) for Medicare. Unlike the annual Part D Open Enrollment Period, for prescription drug coverage, which runs each year from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, the GEP runs from Jan. 1 to March 31 of each year.

This enrollment period is your opportunity to enroll in Medicare Part A and Part B if you have missed your initial enrollment period (IEP) that spans the seven-month window surrounding your birth month the year you turn 65.

You may have also missed the Special Enrollment Period (SEP) of eight months that occurred when you left your job and lost your employer group health care coverage.

The General Enrollment Period is your opportunity to once again address having Medicare coverage for hospitalization and for Medical services.

When you sign up for Medicare A and B during this period, your coverage will begin July 1.

Enrollment options

Enrollment for Medicare Part A and Part B is done through the Social Security Administration (SSA). Unfortunately, you cannot enroll through the SSA website if you are outside the initial enrollment period. You may contact them at their toll-free National Hotline number by calling 1-800-772-1213. This assistance is available Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in all time zones. Hint: Alaskans may find a shorter wait time if calling later in the day.

If you prefer to do business in person, you can call the hotline number and request to make an appointment with your local SSA office. They will let you know if your local office is taking appointments at this time and appointment dates that are available. You may face late charges for late enrollment.

Part A coverage

Most people qualify for premium-free Part A, which means that you or your spouse have worked for 10 years and paid Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes. FICA taxes are a combination of 6.2 percent Social Security tax and a 1.45 percent Medicare tax. Each year you can earn up to 4 tax credits. After 10 years and/or 40 credits are on file with the Social Security Administration, you are eligible for premium-free Part A. If you are eligible for premium-free Part A, you will not have to pay a late enrollment penalty even if enrolling after the initial enrollment period.

For those who do not have premium-free Part A, it can be purchased. The cost of Part A this year for those who paid Medicare taxes for 30 to 39 quarters, (7.5 to 9.75 years) the standard Part A premium is $232 per month. If you paid Medicare taxes for less than 7.5 years or 30 quarters, you will pay the standard premium of $422 per month.

If you have to pay for premium-free Part A, and you did not enroll during the IEP or SEP, you will pay a penalty. The penalty is 10 percent of the Part A premium for every 12 months you went without coverage after you were eligible. The penalty will be imposed for twice the length of time that you went without coverage.

For instance, if you became eligible for Medicare in May of 2016 and did not enroll at that time, you or your spouse did not have coverage through an active employment situation and you have 35 credits, you can sign up for Medicare Part A now. Your coverage will begin July 1, 2018 and your premium would be $232 a month. On top of your Part A premium, you would pay a 20 percent penalty ($46.40) for the two years you didn’t have coverage. The total cost each month would be $278.40. The good news is that this penalty does not last forever. It will be applied for twice the number of years you went without coverage. In this scenario, the penalty would be dropped after four years.

Part B coverage

The penalty for late enrollment in Part B is also 10 percent of the Part B premium for each 12 months you delayed in enrolling and had no coverage. However, the Part B penalty is continuous and will be charged as long as you have Part B. The standard Part B premium this year is $134 per month. If you have a one year or 10 percent penalty ($13.40) your premium and penalty each month would equal $147.40.

If you have questions about enrolling in Medicare Part A or Part B, you may call the Medicare Information Office at 1-800-478-6065.

Help with premium costs

Some people with limited income and assets qualify for assistance in paying for their Part A and/or Part B premiums. The application is submitted to Adult Public Assistance and, if approved, the State of Alaska will pick up the cost of your premiums and the penalties will be waived. There are a number of Medicare Savings Programs that may help. For more information on these programs, please contact the Medicare Information Office at the number listed above. They can screen you to determine your qualification for these programs.

Nila Morgan is a Certified Medicare Counselor and Medicare Fraud Education Coordinator who works at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center.

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Nila Morgan is a Certified Medicare Counselor who works at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center.

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