My ex-wife is a year older than I am. Last year she turned 65 and applied for Medicare. I remember at one point asking her about the whole process of signing up for Medicare. How do you apply? Is it complicated? How do you know what coverage you're getting?
She told me not to worry. A few months before you turn 65 you start receiving all kinds of information in the mail. She'd looked over the basics. "Then I was able to sit down with an insurance agent who specializes in Medicare," she told me, "and he explained the whole system to me. He said he gets paid by the insurance companies, so it didn't cost me a thing."
So I didn't worry. And now this year, in advance of my own 65th birthday, I expected to start receiving lots of literature in the mail, inviting me to join Medicare, showing me how to do it, and explaining all the benefits. I didn't know who it would come from. The government? My insurance company? It wouldn't be from my employer. I no longer have an employer. My company started shedding employees in the 1990s, and got around to shedding me in 2002, so I've been on my own for the last decade.
The calendar turned over, and the months came and went, but I heard not a word from anybody. Maybe my ex-wife was wrong, I thought. Maybe she got information in the mail, because of where she lives, or because of her insurance company, or because she's a woman. But that doesn't necessarily mean everyone gets information in the mail.
I started worrying. Maybe, somehow, I've dropped off the the Medicare "membership" list. Maybe my name got lost in the computer. Maybe they forgot about me!?!
So I finally decided I'd better find out. I realize that for many of you this is "old hat." You've been through all this already. But anyway, like the modern tech-savvy person I am, I typed "How to apply for Medicare" into google. I found lots of general information. There's Part A which is free, and it "helps pay" for inpatient care in a hospital. There's Part B which you pay for, and that "helps pay" for doctor services.
Well, that's pretty good, I thought, but also pretty vague. I found a link for Medicare Premiums and found out my premium for Part B would be $104.90 a month, as long as my MAGI is $85,000 or less. I know what MAGI means (Modified Adjusted Gross Income), although I'm not sure how to calculate it. But I'm pretty sure my MAGI is less than $85,000 so I'm not going to worry about it.
This is getting awfully complicated, I realized. And since I really couldn't find out any specifics, I decided to call the Medicare 800 number, which is 1-800-772-1213. I understood what Parts A and B are, at least in theory. They pay for the majority of your doctor and hospital bills. But I wanted to know some of the particulars. Would they pay for my next colonoscopy? What if I needed surgery on my bad knee? Would it make a difference if I went to the hospital, or had it done in the doctor's office? Could I go to a specialist if the specialist wasn't in my medical group?
Plus, what about Parts C and D? What's the difference between the various Medicare Advantage programs, and the Medigap program?
I negotiated the Medicare phone tree. I finally got to the option to talk with a real person. Then an automated voice announced the wait would be 10 minutes. Arghh! I must admit, I was too impatient. I didn't want to wait and so I hung up.
I called my own current medical insurance company. Maybe they could help.
I negotiated the phone tree and eventually got a very nice lady on the phone. She spoke with a fairly heavy accent, but I understood most of what she was saying. Yes, my insurance company could provide me with a backup plan. There's a PPO plan and an HMO plan. Actually, there are four different PPO plans, and a couple of HMO plans. "What''s your i.d. number?" she began.
The woman stayed on the phone with me for a good 15 or 20 minutes, trying to explain the basics of the different plans. But I had plenty of questions. How do I find out if my doctor is in the HMO network? She gave me a link on the website. How much would it cost? It depends what plan I picked, and what county I live in. Does the plan cover drugs? One of the plans does; another doesn't. She wasn't sure about the others. Are there any dental benefits? Again, it depends on the plan.
What if I moved? Like many retirees and pre-retirees, B and I are thinking of moving in a few years, probably to a different state. She told me that their plan was only good in my state. If I moved I'd have to switch plans.
I confess, I got tired of the conversation before the woman did. She must be used to people asking dumb questions. She finally offered to send me some published materials that would provide me with all the details. It would take about ten days or two weeks to get to me.
The woman did tell me one concrete and crucial thing. Regardless of what else I did, I should apply for Medicare Plans A and B. And I should do it right away, because if I waited and missed the deadlines, then there are restrictions about when you can apply, and I may be subject to higher rates ... for the rest of my life.
You can apply by telephone (at the above 800 number), or in person. But I went back on the website where you apply for Medicare. I found the application. I filled it out. It was pretty easy.
And so as of right now, I await confirmation that I'm accepted into Medicare. And I await some materials in the mail which will presumably inform me what else I need to do to get more than the basic Medicare Parts A and B coverage.
I'd worried that I'd somehow fallen out of the system, or that it might be hard to sign up for Medicare. Bottom line: Don't worry, it's easy to sign up. But it is hard to find out exactly what you're signing up for, and to figure out what kind of backup medical insurance you should get.
More on that in Part II, after I've had a chance to look over those materials.