There are few things more important than our health, both when we're young and when we're in retirement. These days there are few things more costly, too. Thus, it's kind of important to know enough about Medicare to be able to make smart decisions regarding it. Here are five ways that you can maximize your Medicare.
Sign up for it on time
One of the easiest ways to not make the most of Medicare is to be late to enroll in it, as your Part B premiums (which cover medical services, but not hospital services) can rise by 10% for each year that you were eligible for Medicare and didn't enroll. When, then, should you enroll? Well, you're eligible for Medicare at age 65, and can sign up anytime within the three months leading up to your 65th birthday, during the month of your birthday, or within the three months that follow. There's a loophole, though: If you're among the many Americans who are already receiving Social Security benefits by the time they reach age 65, you should be enrolled in Medicare automatically. You might also avoid the penalty and be able to skip the deadline if you're still working, with employer-provided healthcare coverage, at age 65, or if you're serving as a volunteer abroad.
Choose the plan that's best for you
Once you're in the system, you'll need to choose the coverage you want -- and note that you can change your mind once a year, during the annual enrollment period. Medicare today offers a bunch of choices. There's traditional or "original" Medicare, featuring Parts A and B that respectively cover hospital expenses and medical expenses. If you opt for original Medicare, you'll likely add Part D, which offers prescription drug coverage, including insulin supplies. Instead of opting for parts A, B, and D, though, you can choose from among available Medicare Advantage plans, sometimes referred to as Part C. Offered by private insurance companies, they are required to provide at least as much coverage as Parts A and B (and usually offer significantly more) and they cap your out-of-pocket expenses, too.
While original Medicare doesn't cover hearing, vision, or dental care, many Medicare Advantage plans do -- and they generally include prescription drug coverage, too. Original Medicare will often have you footing 20% of many bills with no end in sight, a Medicare Advantage plan might charge you a low copay per doctor visit or service, and they feature out-of-pocket limits, too. There's a downside that might or might not matter to you, though: While original Medicare lets you see any healthcare provider who accepts Medicare, Medicare Advantage plans will typically limit you to a network of doctors -- though these networks are sometimes very big.
To help you zero in on your best choice, make a list of the prescription drugs you take and the doctors you see. Also list the kinds of healthcare services you need and use, noting any upcoming surgeries or big-ticket expenses. When you review the plans you're considering, see which drugs they cover and which doctors are included -- and how much you'll likely spend out of pocket with each one. The Medicare Plan Finder at the Medicare website can help you compare and choose. Note the star ratings of your candidate plans and favor four- or five-star plans.
Take advantage of screenings
Once you're in a Medicare plan, make the most of the screenings and preventive care that are available to you -- typically at no cost to you. Doing so can help identify problems early, before they grow worse and more costly. That can keep you healthier and living longer and better, while keeping your healthcare costs down.
The kinds of services that should cost you nothing (though some require doctor's orders) include: abdominal aortic aneurysm screening, alcohol misuse screening and counseling, bone density measurement, cardiovascular disease screenings, cervical and vaginal cancer screenings, colonoscopies and other colorectal cancer screenings, depression screenings, diabetes screenings, flu shots, hepatitis B shots and hepatitis C screenings, HIV screenings, some home health services, lung cancer screenings, mammograms, nutrition therapy services, obesity screenings and counseling, pneumonia vaccine, prostate cancer screenings, sexually transmitted infection screenings, and smoking and tobacco-use cessation counseling.
Take advantage of telehealth
Many plans these days offer enrollees telehealth services, that let patients consult with doctors and other healthcare professionals electronically, often via a Skype-like video connection. These consultations can cost less than an in-person visit to your doctor and can be more convenient, happening immediately or within hours instead of your needing to make an appointment a day or three away. Telehealth isn't generally an option for all original Medicare enrollees, but it's available to some. And some Medicare Advantage plans offer it, too.
See what telehealth options are available to you and consider using them when it makes sense. They can be particularly helpful if you're traveling and have a health concern.
Take advantage of wellness benefits
Finally, aim to get well and/or stay well via wellness benefits included in your Medicare coverage. For starters, you will definitely be entitled to one wellness visit annually. That's when you can see your primary care doctor to review your health. Don't skip this, as it's available at no cost to you and can be beneficial to your health.
You may have access to other health benefits and perks, too, such as discounts on gym memberships. Find out exactly what your plan offers and make the most of those benefits. When you're shopping for a Medicare plan, review available wellness perks, too, to see which would serve you best.
To make the most of Medicare, plan to use it proactively, not just going to the doctor after you've been feeling poorly for a long time. Sign up on time, choose the best plan for yourself, and take advantage of screenings, preventive care, wellness benefits, and telehealth options.
Longtime Fool specialist Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, owns no shares of any company mentioned in this article. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.