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Navigating Medicare? 5 common questions answered

Looking into Medicare? Use this guide to make informed decisions.

Navigating Medicare options for the first time can be confusing. Even for those who have had employer-offered or individual health plans for decades, Medicare comes with its own set of plan options and requirements. 

So how can you make an informed decision and select a plan that’s best for you and your health needs? Start with the basics and get answers to some of Medicare’s most common questions.


1. When should I start the process of applying for Medicare?

The timeline for applying for Medicare coverage can depend on a variety of factors, so let’s look at a few common scenarios: 

  • You are nearing 65 and ready to switch to Medicare
    For those interested in enrolling in Medicare around their 65th birthday, there is a seven-month period to enroll called an Initial Enrollment Period. The timing for this is different for everyone, as it begins three months before the enrollee turns 65 and ends three months after the month they turn 65. To be sure of when you’ll become eligible, this eligibility calculator can help.

An older woman wearing leggings and a sweatshirt jogs on a grey bridge.

  • You are nearing or above 65 but have an employer-sponsored health plan
    So maybe you’re eligible for Medicare, but you (or your spouse) are still on an employer-sponsored health plan. If it’s preferred to keep the employer plan until you and/or your spouse are retired, that is an option. When you’re ready to retire, you’ll be able to participate in a Special Enrollment Period without any late penalty. Aside from an employer-sponsored health plan, there are also some other situations that will qualify you for a Special Enrollment Period.

  • You’re 65 (or older) but missed the Initial and Special Enrollment Periods
    Each year between January 1 and March 31, you can enroll during the Open Enrollment Period. However, should you apply after the seven-month Initial Enrollment Period and aren’t enrolling as part of a Special Enrollment Period, you may have to pay a monthly late enrollment penalty for as long as you have Part B (and sometimes for Part A) coverage. The same can apply if you have Part A and Part B coverage but opt to sign up for Part D coverage later.

A common misconception about Medicare is that since your tax money pays into Social Security and therefore Medicare, you are automatically enrolled once turning 65. This is not accurate. Regardless of when you choose to get Medicare coverage, you’ll need to apply for and enroll in it yourself. 

2. What are the different Parts of Medicare?

Medicare coverage is broken down into four Parts:

  • Part A is part of Original Medicare, which is offered by the Federal Government. Most people don’t pay a monthly premium for Part A, but there is a deductible. Part A provides coverage for hospital visits such as inpatient hospital stays or hospice care, provided the facility accepts Medicare. 

  • Part B, also part of Original Medicare offered by the Federal Government, provides coverage for medical services. Typically, a Part B premium is deducted from your Social Security payments upon enrollment, although you may receive a bill every three months if you don’t receive Social Security. Part B provides coverage for medical services such as an annual physical or a medically necessary ambulance ride.  

  • Part C is additional coverage offered by private health insurance companies, also known as Medicare Advantage plans. Part C covers all the benefits of Original Medicare (Part A and Part B), plus additional benefits that Original Medicare doesn’t cover. Many people choose to add Part C because it provides more complete coverage than just Original Medicare. Part C is not required, but if you choose to get it, you must also have Part A and Part B (Original Medicare). Part C offers coverage for additional benefits such as routine eye exams, dental, and prescription drug coverage (available with many, but not all, Part C plans).

  • Part D is prescription drug coverage. This can be included with a Part C plan or purchased separately through private health insurers. Like Part C, Part D is not required with Medicare, but if you choose to add it, you must also have Original Medicare. Part D covers a variety of prescription drugs.

3. What choices do I have for Medicare plans?

Anyone enrolling into a Medicare plan must first choose Original Medicare:

Original Medicare, which comes from the Federal Government, includes Part A and Part B. It’s important to remember that Original Medicare only covers 80% of expenses, leaving the remaining 20% as your responsibility. 

A male doctor checks the heartbeat of an older male patient with a stethoscope. They are both sitting down.

Because of this, there are gaps in your coverage when relying only on Original Medicare. For example, Original Medicare has deductibles and does not have a limit on out-of-pocket spending. It also does not cover Part D prescription drugs, routine vision and hearing exams, and other services. Those enrolling in Original Medicare have plan options through private health insurers to consider for additional coverage, as many find that Original Medicare on its own does not provide enough coverage. Two options to consider are a Medicare Advantage plan and a Medicare Supplement plan:

  • A Medicare Advantage plan (Part C) will cover everything that Original Medicare covers, as well as additional benefits. Medicare Advantage plans, which come from a private health insurer, typically have lower monthly premiums than Medicare Supplement plans and are often available with prescription drug coverage (Part D), which allows you to have medical and drug coverage all in one plan.

  • Then there’s the option for a Medicare Supplement plan, which can cover gaps in Original Medicare. Typically, Medicare Supplement plans have higher monthly premiums than Medicare Advantage plans, but you can see any doctor who accepts Medicare. If prescription drug coverage is needed, you would need to purchase a separate prescription drug plan (PDP), Part D, as it’s not included with a Medicare Supplement plan.

4. Is it better to keep my employer’s health insurance or get Medicare?

As mentioned earlier, you do have the option to keep your employer’s health insurance even if you are of Medicare age. The best choice will depend on your current job, lifestyle, and health care needs.


For instance, if you work for a company with more than 20 employees, you might choose to sign up for Medicare Part A coverage if there’s no premium for you. In that case, your job-based insurance pays first, followed by Medicare. For those who work for an employer with less than 20 employees, you’ll want to ask your employer if you’ll need to sign up for Medicare Part A and Part B upon turning 65. And for those who have health insurance from Medicaid or Marketplace, whether you need to sign up for Medicare will depend on what your current health plan covers. Review common situations, as well as answer questions to determine when you should sign up for Medicare. 

5. How do I choose the right plan for me?

Choosing health insurance of any kind is a personal decision, one that depends on your health, age and lifestyle. For Medicare, consider these factors when deciding what works best for you:

  • Your Health
    How often do you visit a doctor, specialist, or hospital? If you are in good health, a plan with a $0 or low monthly premium might be best. If you see your doctor more often, you may want a plan with a higher monthly premium in exchange for lower doctor visit copays.    

A male doctor sits down with an older female patient to discuss her medical history. They are both wearing masks and looking down at the doctor's blue clipboard.

  • Your Budget
    Consider whether you want to pay less each month or less when you visit a doctor. Typically, there are lower monthly premiums with Medicare Advantage versus a Medicare Supplement plan, but fewer services require a copayment with a Medicare Supplement plan. Another consideration is out-of-pocket costs. Medicare Advantage plans provide an out-of-pocket maximum that limits the amount you spend on medical costs in a year, but with Original Medicare and Medicare Supplement plans, there is no annual limit to how much you may have to pay out of pocket.  

  • Your Doctors and Specialists
    Choosing a Medicare Advantage health maintenance organization (HMO) plan means you have a primary care physician (PCP) who works together with a team of specialists to help you stay healthy and get the care that is right for you, whereas a Medicare Advantage preferred provider organization (PPO) plan means you can see any doctor but are responsible for coordinating your own care. 
    With a Medicare Supplement plan, you don’t have a PCP, but you can see any doctor who accepts Original Medicare. 

  • Drug Coverage
    With a Medicare Advantage plan, you can have Part D prescription drug coverage and medical coverage all in the same plan. With a Medicare Supplement plan, if you want prescription drug coverage, you’d need to enroll in a separate prescription drug plan (PDP).

While some of the most common questions regarding Medicare have been addressed here, this is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are additional resources available to support you through the Medicare enrollment process. The Medicare website, for example, offers a ZIP code breakdown that outlines health plan options available for you with an estimated cost. Tufts Health Plan also offers Medicare Made Simple, a guide and FAQ on navigating Medicare.

Tufts Health Plan, a Point32Health company, has Massachusetts-based Medicare Advantage plans to support those who are aging strong. To learn more about your Medicare options, call Tufts Medicare Experts at 1-877-212-9768 or visit– and read on for more insights and stories from Tufts Health Plan.

This content was written by the advertiser and edited by Studio/B to uphold The Boston Globe's content standards. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its writing, production, or display.