Every year people who are on Medicare can make changes to their coverage. There are specific times of the year when someone can sign up or make a change to how they receive their Medicare benefits. The annual dates to keep in mind are Medicare’s annual fall Open Enrollment Period (OEP), which runs from October 15th – December 7th, and the Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment Period (MA OEP), which runs from January 1st– March 31st

While these two Medicare enrollment periods have similar names, there are important differences to note between the two. During Medicare OEP any individual who currently has Medicare can make changes to how they receive their coverage such as joining a new Medicare Advantage plan or selecting a stand-alone prescription drug plan (Part D plan). Additionally, during this OEP people can make as many changes as they want to their coverage as long as those changes happen between October 15th and December 7th. For example, someone could switch between Original Medicare to a Medicare Advantage Plan and then back to Original Medicare again as long as those changes occurred during the designated period. Changes made during the fall OEP go into effect on January 1st of the new year. 

The Medicare Advantage OEP (MA OEP) differs from the fall OEP in several important ways. During the MA OEP, only individuals currently enrolled in a Medicare Advantage Plan can make changes to their coverage. During this time someone with a Medicare Advantage Plan can switch to a different plan, drop their Medicare Advantage Plan, and return to Original Medicare, and, in certain situations, change their Part D prescription drug coverage. One critical detail for the MA OEP is that individuals seeking to make changes are limited to one change. Because of the limited changes that someone can make during this time, it’s vital to critically compare the options and the different Medicare Advantage Plans that are available. Changes made during the MA OEP will become effective on the first of the month after the plan receives the enrollee’s request. 

As the number of changes you can make during the MA OEP is limited, it’s important to find unbiased information about the plans that might be the right fit. One tool that can be used to compare options is Medicare’s Plan Finder tool. This tool can be found at www.medicare.gov/plan-compare. Medicare’s Plan Finder only compares Medicare Advantage Plans to one another and does not show comparisons with Original Medicare. Additionally, those considering a change at this time may want to meet with a State Health Insurance Program (SHIP) Counselor. SHIP Counselors are volunteers who are trained to provide local, in-depth, and impartial guidance and counseling for Medicare-eligible individuals. To find a SHIP Counselor near you, call SHIP’s toll-free line at 1-877-801-0044 or visit www.shiptacenter.org

If you are currently enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan and have been dissatisfied with your coverage, are curious about the available options, or want to see if there are lower-cost options for you, a MA OEP is a great opportunity to examine what is available. Remember to consider your changes critically before making them as there is only one change allowed during this period. 

For more information on MA OEP and other enrollment periods for Medicare, visit www.cms.gov