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Medicare is the federal government's health insurance program. Generally, you can sign up for the Medicare program if you are 65 years old, eligible for social security or railroad retirement benefit payments, and a citizen or permanent resident of the United States. You might also qualify for coverage if you are younger than 65, with a disability or chronic kidney disease.

In general, Medicare will pay for healthcare when you are sick or injured. What Medicare covers depends on whether you have Medicare Part A or both Part A and Part B. With traditional Medicare you can expect the following:

  • You can see any primary care physician or specialist regardless of where they are located.
  • In most cases, there are no monthly premiums for Part A. In 2006, Part B has a monthly premium of $88.50. This amount would be deducted directly from your Social Security or Railroad Retirement Benefit check.
  • You are generally responsible for paying 100% of the cost of additional benefits like outpatient prescription drugs, routine eye exams, and eyeglasses.
  • If you have Medicare Part A and Part B as your healthcare coverage, your out-of-pocket costs may become significant. For example, if you are admitted to the hospital, you must pay a $952 deductible for your first 60 days in the hospital per benefit period. Each year, you must also pay a $124 annual deductible for doctors' office visits and 20% of all Medicare-approved charges, in most instances. Many other benefits are also subject to deductibles and coinsurance.
  • Emergency care is not covered outside of the United States, except under limited circumstances.

Signing up for Traditional Medicare

Your initial enrollment period to sign up for Medicare Part B benefits begins three months before your 65th birthday and ends three months after your 65th birthday. As indicated above, you will generally be entitled to Medicare Part A benefits when you sign up for your Social Security benefits.

If you do not enroll during the initial enrollment period, you will have to wait until the next general enrollment period. Each year, the general enrollment period is held from January 1st to March 31st. If you sign up during the general enrollment period, your Part B coverage would start in July of that year.

If you wait 12 or more months to sign up, your Medicare premiums generally will be higher. Part B premiums go up 10% for each 12 months that you could have enrolled but did not.

You can sign up for Social Security and Medicare by contacting the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 (TDD: 1-800-325-0778). If you or your spouse worked for the railroad, you can contact the Railroad Retirement Board at 1-800-808-0772.

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