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The 2021 Annual Enrollment Period (AEP) for Medicare

The 2021 annual enrollment period (AEP) for Medicare runs from October 15, 2021 through December 7, 2021. Whether you’re new to the program or want to switch to a different kind of coverage, here are important dates and deadlines to keep in mind:

  • October 15th: Medicare open enrollment starts. This is your chance to update your coverage for the following year. Use this period to switch from Original Medicare to Medicare Advantage (Part C); drop Part C coverage and go back to Original Medicare; switch from one Medicare Advantage plan to another; or drop, switch or sign up for a Medicare Part D drug plan.
  • December 7th: The Annual Enrollment Period for Medicare ends for coverage in 2022.
  • January 1st: Any changes that you made during the 2021 annual enrollment period for Medicare will take effect on the first of the year. If you signed up for a new plan, it’ll start on the first as well.
  • January 1st to March 31st: From January 1st through March 31st, you can make a one-time change to your health plan if you have Medicare Advantage. It’s called the Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment Period. You can only make a single change to your coverage, so it’s not as extensive as the annual enrollment period, but it is another chance to make sure you’ve got the right Medicare plan in place for 2022.
  • April 1st to June 30th: This is a special signup period for a specific set of people. If you have Medicare Part A but waited to get Part B during the general enrollment period (January 1st through March 31st) — i.e., you enrolled late into Part B — then you can enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan from April 1st through June 30th. Coverage for your new health plan won’t start until July 1st.

Initial Enrollment Period (IEP)

The annual open enrollment period applies to existing Medicare enrollees. If you haven’t signed up for any portion of Medicare yet, and you’ll be eligible based on age soon, then you’ll sign up during what’s called the Initial Enrollment Period (IEP) or initial eligibility window. It’s a 7-month enrollment period that starts three months before the month you turn 65 and runs for three months after your birthday month.

For example, if your birthday is October 9th, your IEP will run from July 1st through January 31st the year you turn 65.

You can sign up for Original Medicare or Medicare Advantage during this time frame.

In fact, it’s the best time to sign up because you may have to pay a penalty if you wait to enroll outside this period. If you miss your IEP, you can enroll in Medicare Parts A and/or B (Original Medicare) during the General Enrollment Period, which runs from January 1st through March 31st each year.

But if you use this period to enroll, your coverage doesn’t start until July 1st. So make sure you use your IEP to sign up unless you qualify for a special enrollment period (usually because you’re still working and have health insurance through your job at age 65).

What if I miss my initial enrollment window?

Unless you qualify for a special enrollment period, you need to sign up for Original Medicare or Medicare Advantage during your initial eligibility window. You can also use the Medicare Open Enrollment Period to switch to Medicare Advantage if you already have Original.

But keep in mind that there are fees for signing up late to Original Medicare (outside of your initial window). These fees differ based on each portion of Medicare:

  • Part A: Most people don’t pay a premium for Part A. If you’re among the few that have to, then you may owe a penalty if you wait to enroll. The penalty for late enrollment into Part A is 10 percent. This penalty lasts for twice the number of years that you could have had Part A but chose not to. If you don’t have a premium for Part A — and again, most don’t — then you can enroll in Part A anytime you’re eligible.
  • Part B: Everyone pays a Part B premium, but the amount varies based on your income. Higher-income enrollees pay more. For Part B, the late enrollment penalty is 10 percent on top of your monthly premium for each full, 12-month period that you could have had Part B but didn’t. The penalty lasts for as long as you have Part B coverage.
  • Part D: Medicare calculates Part D late enrollment penalty differently from Parts A and B. For Medicare Part D, you’ll pay 1 percent of the “national base beneficiary premium” times the number of full months that you didn’t have Part D or creditable drug coverage. In 2022, the national base beneficiary premium is $33.37. If you sign up late for Part D, then you’ll pay 1 percent times the number of months you didn’t have coverage, on top of whatever premium your plan charges. The fee lasts for as long as you have Part D coverage.

You may be able to enroll in Medicare outside of your initial window without worrying about a penalty for late enrollment. Special enrollment periods exist for different cases, such as losing group coverage from work or being disabled. Check with Medicare to make sure.