Medicare open enrollment runs in the fall each year, but there’s another time when you can switch plans. It’s called Medicare Advantage open enrollment.

During Medicare Advantage open enrollment, which runs from Jan. 1 to March 31, you can only:

  • Switch Medicare Advantage plans
  • Swap a Medicare Advantage plan for Original Medicare
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Medicare Advantage open enrollment doesn’t allow you to make as many changes as during Medicare open enrollment. In Medicare open enrollment, you’re able to also: 

  • Switch to a Medicare Advantage plan from Original Medicare
  • Change Part D prescription drug benefits

Read more about how Medicare Advantage plans work.

 

When you can sign up for Medicare

You can sign up for Medicare within three months after you turn 65 when you become eligible. You don’t have to wait until an open enrollment period to sign up for Medicare. 

When you sign up, you can choose either Original Medicare or a Medicare Advantage plan. Original Medicare provides hospital and physician coverage through the federal government. If you want prescription drug benefits, you have to purchase a Medicare Part D plan, too. 

Medicare Advantage, on the other hand, provides hospital and physician coverage found in Original Medicare, but usually also offers prescription drug coverage and supplemental benefits, such as vision and dental. 

If you don’t choose Medicare Advantage when you become eligible, you have to wait until Medicare open enrollment, which runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, to sign up for Medicare Advantage. You can’t sign up for Medicare Advantage for the first time during Medicare Advantage open enrollment. Instead, you can only change Medicare Advantage plans or switch to Original Medicare. 

Find out more about the differences between Original Medicare and Medicare Advantage.

 

How to compare Medicare Advantage plans

Private insurance companies offer Medicare Advantage plans. Insurers have flexibility when creating plans. These plans can range in premiums, deductibles, out-of-pocket costs, supplemental benefits and provider networks. 

When comparing Medicare Advantage plans, you’ll want to think about and compare:

  • Premiums
  • Out-of-pocket costs
  • Supplemental benefits
  • Provider network
  • Prescription drug benefits
  • The plan’s quality rating

The average monthly Medicare Advantage premium is $21 in 2021. However, many plans have zero premiums. The out-of-pocket maximum for Medicare Advantage plans is $7,550. That’s the most you'll pay for services in a Medicare Advantage plan in 2021. 

Usually, Medicare Advantage plans with the lowest premiums have the highest out-of-pocket costs. On the flip side, plans with higher premiums often have lower out-of-pocket costs. 

So, when you’re comparing plans, make sure to compare premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs and weigh the different costs. 

Think about how much health care you needed over the past year and what you expect for the next year. If you regularly see doctors, you may want a plan with higher premiums but lower out-of-pocket costs.  

If you don’t need to see a doctor except for an annual physician, a plan with low premiums and higher out-of-pocket costs could be a better fit. 

You’ll also want to compare the plans’ supplemental benefits. The vast majority of Medicare Advantage plans have prescription drug benefits. Many have telehealth, vision and dental coverage. A growing number provide supplemental benefits like home health care, palliative care and adult day health services. 

Medicare Advantage insurers also offer plans geared to people living with specific health issues, such as diabetes and congestive heart failure. Some plans also help people with chronic conditions manage their diseases, including non-medical help with grocery shopping and meal delivery. There are even plans that offer reimbursement for transportation to doctor and other appointments. 

Next, make sure your providers accept the specific Medicare Advantage plan. Providers may accept one plan from an insurer, but not another, so ask about the specific plan. Also, see if other local providers and your preferred hospital take the Medicare Advantage plan. You never know when you might see a specialist. Check whether there's a network of nearby providers.

A plan will also dictate whether you can see a provider outside your network. A Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) plan won’t reimburse for care outside of your network. A Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) plan allows you to get care outside of your network, but you’ll likely pay more for that care. So, if you want more flexibility, a PPO might be better for you, but those plans are also usually more expensive than HMOs. 

If you’re on medication, make sure the plan covers it and see how much you’ll pay for your prescriptions. Prescription drugs can be a major cost for Medicare beneficiaries. Make sure you’re comfortable with drug costs in the plan. 

One other thing to check out is the plan’s quality rating. Medicare offers star ratings for each Medicare Advantage plan, which considers the quality of care and customer service. 

You can compare Medicare Advantage plans by star ratings on the Medicare Plan Finder. The Plan Finder also includes cost estimates, including premiums, out-of-pocket and drug costs. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' tool also asks you questions to help narrow your choices. 

Medicare Advantage open enrollment is a great time to review your plan and explore your options. The average Medicare Advantage beneficiary has 47 plan choices in 2021. Compare multiple options to find the right plan for you.