When most people say Medicare Open Enrollment they are referring to the Annual Election Period (abbreviated AEP). AEP is the annual period in which Medicare enrollees can reevaluate their coverage and make changes if they feel the need to do so.
The Annual Election Period (AEP) is when Medicare enrollees can add, change, or drop their Medicare Part D (drug coverage) or Medicare Advantage plan coverage for the next year.
The AEP starts every year on October 15th and runs through December 7th. Any changes you make during the AEP will take effect on January 1st of the following year.
Other Medicare Enrollment Periods
Outside of the Annual Election Period, there are some other enrollment periods that Medicare recipients should be aware of. These will all be covered in more detail further below.
Initial Election Period (IEP) is the time when you first become eligible for Medicare. This period is unique to every person, as it’s tied to their birthday.
The General Enrollment Period is for Medicare enrollees who missed out on signing up for Medicare Part B during their IEP. Similarly to Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment (MA-OEP), this period runs from January 1st to March 31st.
Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment Period (MA-OEP) is a new open enrollment period that started in 2019. During this period, running from January 1st to March 31st, people can change or drop their Medicare Advantage coverage.
The Special Election Period (SEP) is an open enrollment triggered by special circumstances, such as a change in employment or a change in coverage area.
Please note that there is no Open Enrollment Period for Medicare Supplement Plans (Medigap). While there is a window to make changes to your Medigap plan after initial enrollment, any further changes outside of this window are subject to approval by the insurance carrier.
Do I have to do anything during the Annual Election Period?
Short answer, no. If you decide you don’t want to change anything about your Medicare Advantage or Medicare Part D plan, no sweat! You can sit tight during Annual Election Period and be automatically renewed into your current plan.
The only exception is if your plan is discontinued and isn’t eligible for renewal. In this instance, your carrier will send you a non-renewal notice prior to the beginning of AEP. If you don’t see a notice like this, you don’t need to change anything.
Even though you don’t need to make changes during the Annual Election Period, it’s still a good idea to research any changes that might happen to your Medicare Advantage or Part D plan. Benefits and premiums can change year to year, so while you may be happy with your coverage now, next year could be a different story.
What can I do during the Annual Election Period?
During Medicare open enrollment, someone who is already on Medicare can take any of the following actions without penalty:
- Switch Medicare Advantage Plans
- Switch from Medicare Advantage to Original Medicare or vice versa
- Join a Medicare Part D prescription drug plan
- Switch from one Part D plan to another
- Drop Medicare Part D coverage entirely
Other enrollment periods
As we mentioned above, there are other enrollment periods that allows a Medicare user to adjustment their coverage without a penalty.
However, unlike AEP some of these Enrollment Periods require specific circumstances in order to be used.
What is the Initial Election Period and how is it different from AEP?
The Initial Election Period (IEP) is the window where you are first eligible to enroll in Medicare. Unlike the Annual Election Period, which comes around every year, the Initial Election Period only happens once in a person’s lifetime.
Most Americans are first eligible for Medicare when they turn 65. As long as you or your spouse has accrued ten years of work history, hitting 65 is the only barrier for entry.
The IEP is unique to the individual as the window is based on your birth month. Your IEP spans the three months before you turn 65, the month you turn 65 and the three months after you turn 65.
What if I want to switch my Medicare Advantage Plan?
Starting in 2019, there is a new Open Enrollment period that is open to anyone who is enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan.
The period is called the Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment Period (MA-OEP) and lasts from January 1st to March 31st. However, unlike the AEP in which enrollees can change their minds multiple times, those opting to take advantage of the MA-OEP can only make one change during the 3 month period.
There are only a few changes you can make during this period. They are:
- Switch your Medicare Advantage Plan for another Medicare Plan.
- You can also purchase a Medicare Part D plan during this MA-OEP if you elect to enroll in Original Medicare.
Before the 21st Century Cures Act, Medicare enrollees didn’t have the option to switch Medicare Advantage plans and the Special Enrollment Period was only one and a half months instead of the current three.
If you decide to switch to an Original Medicare plan or switch Medicare Advantage plans, these changes would take place at the beginning of the next month.
Unlike the AEP, in which enrollees can change their minds multiple times, those opting to take advantage of the MA-OEP can only make one change per year. So, it’s best to do all your research beforehand to make sure whatever switch you make is in your best interest.
When can I change my Medicare Supplement Plan?
Technically, you can change your Medicare Supplement (Medigap) plan any time you’d like. But there is a catch.
While you do have the flexibility to change your Medigap plan at any point during the year, such as switching to a Plan G from a Plan F, you may be required to get approval from the insurance carriers of your new plan.
Since Medigap plans are offered by private insurers, they reserve the right to deny you coverage based on your current health if you apply for a plan outside your Initial Enrollment Period (IEP).
So what does that mean for you? Say your current Medigap plan isn’t cutting it after a change in your health. In order to be able to switch to a more appropriate plan, you may have to undergo a comprehensive physical exam.
Some states have rules in place that allow Medigap enrollees to switch plans without undergoing this physical evaluation.
Washington, on the other hand, allows for Medigap eligibility all year, meaning any Medicare eligible person could apply at any time and receive coverage. This is a bit of a catch-22 however, as Washington has some of the highest Medicare Supplement rates in the country.
What if I never signed up for Original Medicare?
If you missed the period to sign up for Original Medicare and are not eligible for a Special Enrollment Period, you can sign up for Medicare Part A and Part B between January 1 and March 31 each year.
Your coverage won’t start until July 1st. You still need to pay a premium for Part B (and Part A, if applicable), and you may be subject to late enrollment penalties.
When is my enrollment period if I have employer coverage?
Certain special circumstances qualify you for Special Enrollment Period (SEP).
The most common of these SEPs is when your employment changes. If you continue working past 65 with coverage that offers at least the same benefits as Original Medicare, you can delay Original Medicare enrollment without penalty.
You can opt to leave your employer-based plan (or your spouse’s if you are covered by them) at any time to enroll in Medicare. You have an eight month SEP that starts the month after your employer provided health insurance ends.
Be aware that COBRA or retiree health plans are not considered employer-based coverage and therefore will not extend your 8 month SEP. Once you leave your employer-based plan, the 8 month SEP starts.
There are two additional circumstances where you will also qualify for a Special Enrollment Period:
- You move out of the service area of your current plan
- Your current plan is discontinued
All Medicare Open Enrollment Dates
As we mentioned above, Medicare Open Enrollment could refer to multiple periods of enrollment. The dates are as follows:
- Annual Election Period (AEP) – October 15 to December 7
- Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment Period (MA OEP) – January 1 to March 31
- Initial Election Period (IEP) – Specific to each individual
- Special Election Period (SEP) – Specific to each individual
- General Enrollment Period – January 1 to March 31