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Medicare Part B is included in Original Medicare and pays for doctor office visits, outpatient surgical procedures, ambulance services, lab work, mental health services, and more.

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Medicare is a federal government-sponsored health insurance program that includes Part A and Part B. While Part A covers inpatient hospital stays, care in a skilled nursing facility, hospice care, and certain home health care services, Medicare Part B reimburses for doctor's visits, outpatient surgical procedures, preventive services, and ambulance services.

It pays to better understand what Medicare Part B is, how it works, how to qualify and apply, and what is and isn't covered.

What is Medicare Part B?

Medicare Part B falls under Original Medicare and is referred to as medical insurance. 

The premium you pay is based on your income from two years prior. Most people with Medicare pay $148.50 monthly for Part B. Part A is free to most Americans -- anyone who paid Medicare taxes for at least 40 quarters.

Medicare Part B fills in many gaps not covered by Part A, including doctors' services, outpatient care, medical supplies, and preventive services.

Key Takeaways

  • Medicare Part B is the medical insurance portion of Original Medicare.
  • While Medicare Part A covers hospitalizations, Part B handles outpatient care like doctor’s appointments.
  • Part B beneficiaries pay a monthly premium, as well as an out-of-pocket costs, such as an annual deductible and coinsurance when they need health care services.
  • People turning 65 can sign up for Medicare Part B starting three months before their 65th birthday month.

Who is eligible for Medicare Part B?

Medicare Part B health insurance coverage is available to people 65 and over, those who have been collecting Social Security Disability benefits for at least 24 months, people with end-stage renal disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), those who receive retirement benefits from the Railroad Retirement Board.

People who are turning 65 have between three months before their 65th birthday month to three months after their 65th birthday month to sign up for Medicare coverage. If you don’t sign up during that initial enrollment period, you may be charged a penalty once you get Medicare coverage. That penalty is 10% for every year that you didn’t sign up for coverage. 

So, if you want until your 68th birthday to get coverage, you may pay 30% more for Part B premiums. 

What does Medicare Part B cover?

Medicare benefits include hospital and outpatient coverage. Part B covers several services and procedures:

  • Doctors services, such as office visits 
  • Outpatient surgical procedures
  • Durable medical equipment
  • Ambulance services
  • Lab work
  • Inpatient and outpatient mental health services
  • Home health services
  • Some preventive services, such as flu shots 

It may also pay for particular drugs administered in a clinical setting, such as insulin and osteoporosis injections.

What does Medicare Part B not cover?

Part B does not pay for hospital services if you’re admitted to a hospital as an inpatient. Those services fall under Part A.

"Many people who turn 65 are also surprised to learn that Medicare Part B does not cover certain ancillary services, including routine dental procedures and dental visits, vision services like eye exams, and hearing benefits such as hearing aids or exams for fitting hearing aids," says Ari Parker, lead advisor for Chapter, a Phoenix-based Medicare advisory organization. "It also doesn't cover most prescription drugs that would be filled at a pharmacy. To get drug coverage, Medicare beneficiaries typically purchase either a stand-alone prescription drug plan -- also known as Medicare Part D -- or opt for prescription drug coverage that's offered through a Medicare Advantage plan."

Long-term care also isn’t covered by Part B. This involves non-specialized personal care, with aid given for daily activities such as dressing, eating, bathing, or using the washroom.

"Lastly, Part B won't pay for certain services like acupuncture and cosmetic surgery as well as certain vaccines, such as the shingles vaccine," adds Parker.

How much is Medicare Part B?

Medicare Part B premiums are based on your annual income from two years prior reported on your IRS tax return; that means the 2021 cost for Part B is based on your earnings from 2019. 

Currently, monthly premiums vary from $148.50 to $504.90 monthly per person, according to Amanda Reese with Hafetz and Associates in Linwood, New Jersey.

"If your annual income is over $88,000 as an individual or $176,000 for those filing joint tax returns, you'll pay more," Parker says.

If your modified adjusted gross income is above the $88,000 and $176,000 amounts, you pay higher premiums through the Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amount (or IRMAA).

Medicare Part B premiums
File individual tax returnFile joint tax returnFile married & separate tax returnMonthly premium
$88,000 or less$176,000 or less$88,000 or less$148.50
$88,000 to $111,000$176,000 to $222,000Not applicable$207.90
$111,000 to $138,000$222,000 to $276,000Not applicable$297.00
$138,000 to $165,000$276,000 to $330,000Not applicable$386.10
$165,000 to $500,000$330,000 to $750,000$88,000 to $412,000$475.20
$500,000 or above$750,000 and above$412,000 and above$504.90

Note that, aside from your premiums, you also pay approximately 20% of the costs of medical services after you meet your Medicare Part B deductible. Medicare covers the first 80% of eligible expenses, and you take care of the rest.

"Be aware that there is no out-of-pocket maximum limit over a calendar year. This is why many people choose a Medigap plan or Medicare Advantage plan to help fill in the gaps in costs or services," adds Parker.

What is the Medicare Part B deductible?

You also have to pay an out-of-pocket deductible every year if you need health care services. For 2021, the Part B deductible is $203 annually.

This is the sum you must pay before Original Medicare kicks in for medical services. After your deductible is met, you are on the hook for the 20% typically not paid by Medicare Part B when it comes to doctor services, outpatient services, applicable drugs administered in a clinical setting, and other services covered by Part B. That’s called coinsurance. 

So, let’s say you already met your deductible for the year. You go for tests that cost $400. Medicare Part B pays 80% of that amount, which is $320. You’re responsible for the rest, which is $80. 

How to sign up for Medicare Part B

Many people don't realize that they must opt into Medicare and officially enroll in Part B -- unless you’re already receiving Part B benefits based on being disabled or are collecting Social Security benefits before your 65th birthday (in which case you will be auto-enrolled in Part B).

"The easiest and fastest way to enroll is through the Social Security website or to phone 800-773-1213," says Scott Maibor, managing director of Boston-headquartered Senior Benefits Boston.

When applying, be prepared to share information about yourself and supply documentation to verify your identity, such as a driver's license, birth certificate, or proof of US citizenship.

How long does it take to get Medicare Part B after applying?

After you complete your application, you won't be enrolled in Part B instantly or automatically.

"In general, Part B can take four to six weeks for Social Security to process and contact you with an approval," notes Reese. "Checking your My Social Security account online can keep you updated on the progress of your application and confirm approval prior to the letter being mailed out to you."

There are three periods when you can sign up for Part B as well as Part A:

  • Your initial enrollment period, a seven-month window that begins three months before the month of your 65th birthday and lasts through the three months following the month of your 65th birthday.
  • A special enrollment period if you have a qualifying life event. 
  • A general enrollment period or open enrollment period that runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. 

Medicare Part B special enrollment periods

Special enrollment periods are windows of time outside the normal enrollment period when you can sign up for Medicare health insurance.

Why would someone delay Part B coverage? 

"With Part B, some people choose to defer this coverage if they already have health care coverage through their employer. Your special enrollment period is triggered on the date you leave that employer, and this period ends eight months after you lose your employer-issued health insurance. If you enroll for Part B within that eight-month window, you will not have to pay a Part B late enrollment penalty, which is equivalent to 10% of premiums for every 12 months someone waits to enroll when they should have enrolled," Parker explains.

Note that if you’re not currently working and opt not to enroll in Part B but then decide to do so at a later time, you run the risk that your coverage could be delayed. Additionally, you may be forced to pay a higher monthly premium for as long as you have Part B.

Frequently Ask Questions

What is the difference between Medicare Part A and Part B?

Medicare Part A and Part B comprise Original Medicare. 

Part A is hospital insurance, while Part B handles outpatient hospital services. While Part A is free to most Americans, Part B has a monthly premium that’s based on your household income. Medicare taxes help fund those programs. 

Both types of Original Medicare have annual deductibles. Health care providers and facilities that accept Medicare take both Parts A and B.

Do I have to apply for Medicare Part B?

Yes. You must opt into Medicare and enroll in Part B when you are eligible to do so. You can do this online through the Social Security website or by phoning 800-773-1213.

Does Medicare Part B cover dental?

No, Medicare Part B doesn’t pay for most dental care services or devices, including regular cleanings, X-rays, tooth extractions, fillings, dentures, or dental plates. 

"If you have dental services performed in a hospital, Medicare Part A will cover your inpatient hospital care in emergencies and during more complicated dental procedures," says Amanda Reese with Hafetz and Associates.

There are discussions in Congress to potentially provide dental coverage in Part B, but as of now, Original Medicare doesn’t offer that coverage. 

Can I get Medicare Part B for free?

It's possible to get Part B for free or at reduced costs. If you qualify for Medicaid, your premiums, deductibles, coinsurance, and copays may be paid for in full or partially. 

The Medicare Savings Program is a federal/state program for people with low incomes can help pay premiums and copays. Eligibility varies by state, but people usually must have income limits of $1,500 per month or less. 

You can also get Medicare supplement insurance called Medigap that can help you pay out-of-pocket medical expenses. 

Or you also choose a Medicare Advantage plan from a private health insurance company, which often offers plans with no premiums.

"There are also Medicare Advantage plans that will pay a portion of your premium," says Scott Maibor with Senior Benefits Boston.

How can I reinstate Medicare Part B?

If you canceled or disenrolled from your Part B coverage, you may be able to get reinstated. However, you might have to pay a late enrollment penalty to re-enroll unless you had group health insurance during the period when you did not have Part B. 

"To re-enroll, you have to visit the Social Security office website, complete the application, and send the required documents to complete the process. If you left Part B coverage to enroll in an employer-issued plan, you may have to prove coverage in order to avoid paying late enrollment fees," says Parker.

Is Medicare Part B automatically deducted from Social Security?

Yes, the Social Security Administration deducts the premium for your Part B monthly premium from your monthly Social Security check. 

If you’re in Part B but not collecting Social Security, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will bill you quarterly for the Part B premium. You can pay the premium electronically by sending a check through the mail.

What is the income limit for Part B?

There’s no income limit to get Medicare Part B, but you pay higher premiums if your income is more than $88,000 or you file jointly and your combined income is more than $176,000.