As of October 2016, there were more than 57 million enrollees in Medicare, roughly 18% of the U.S. population. The program will spend a projected $700 billion on benefit payments in 2017. Clearly, Medicare is a big deal, and if you're not greatly benefiting from it now, you probably will in the future. So take some time to learn how to maximize your Medicare. Here are six ways.

A pen and stethescope resting atop a Medicare enrollment form.

Image source: Getty Images.

Sign up on time -- or you'll pay

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. If you fail to enroll during this seven-month period, you can always enroll during the "general enrollment period," which is from Jan. 1 through March 31 of each year -- but the Part B premiums (which cover medical services but not hospital services) that you'll pay for the rest of your life can rise by 10% for each year that you were eligible for Medicare but didn't enroll.

Fortunately, if you're already receiving Social Security benefits when you turn 65, you'll likely be automatically be enrolled in Medicare. Many people don't start collecting Social Security that early, though, so stay on top of this. And even if you are already collecting benefits, be sure to double-check that you've been enrolled.

If you're still working, with employer-provided healthcare coverage, at age 65, or are serving as a volunteer abroad, you can delay enrolling in Medicare without penalty.

Assess your prescription drug needs

You may not make the best Medicare decisions if you haven't taken inventory of the drugs you take. Make a list of your prescriptions and have them ready when it's time to compare plans and choose between them, as plans can vary when it comes to just which drugs are covered and how much you'll have to pay for them. (Remember that just as there's a penalty for enrolling late in Medicare, there's also one for enrolling late in Part D prescription drug coverage.)

Image source: Getty Images.

Choose the plan that suits you best

As a Medicare enrollee, you'll need to choose a plan, and you have two main choices: "original" Medicare and a Medicare Advantage plan. Let's review each.

Original Medicare includes Part A (hospital coverage), Part B (physician/medical insurance), and Part D (prescription drug coverage), which is optional. Also, many enrollees choose to add on a private Medigap plan to pay for more of what Medicare doesn't pay.

Medicare Advantage plans, meanwhile (sometimes referred to as Part C), are offered by private insurers but are regulated by the U.S. government. They must offer at least as much coverage as original Medicare, but many go well beyond that, including prescription drug coverage, vision, dental, and so on. These plans are sometimes great choices, as they may cost less and provide more coverage.

When it's time to choose, read up on all the options available to you where you live. (Different Medicare Advantage plans, for example, are offered in different regions by different insurance companies.) Don't just compare premiums either, because Medicare Advantage plans may offer different copayments, deductibles, and so on. Compare total expected out-of-pocket costs, and consider other pros and cons, too. For example, Medicare Advantage plans are typically rooted in your local area. If you plan to travel a lot, original Medicare plans may be preferable as they're honored by providers nationwide. The Medicare Plan Finder on the Medicare website can help you compare plans and choose. Note the star ratings of your candidate plans and opt for four- or five-star plans.

Once you decide, know that you can change your mind and choose a different plan next year. In fact, it's a good idea to review all your options and their costs each year.

Take advantage of screenings

Another smart way to maximize your Medicare is to make the most of the screenings and preventive care that are available to you, typically at no extra cost. 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 doctors' 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
  • smoking and tobacco-use cessation counseling .

Image source: Getty Images.

Try telehealth

Many Medicare plans offer telehealth services, which let you 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, as it can happen immediately or within hours. They can be particularly helpful if you're traveling and have a health concern. Telehealth isn't generally an option for all original Medicare enrollees, but it's available to some, and some Medicare Advantage plans offer it as well.

Use your wellness benefits

Finally, aim to get well and/or stay well via wellness benefits included in your Medicare coverage. For starters, you're entitled to one wellness visit annually. That's when you can see your primary care doctor to review your health. Don't skip this -- it's available at no cost to you and gives your doctor a chance to discuss ways to get you healthier instead of just ways to treat the illness or injury you walked in with.

You may have access to other health benefits and perks, too, such as discounts on gym memberships. Find out what your plan offers and make the most of those benefits. When you're shopping for a Medicare plan, review available wellness perks to see which would serve you best.

Maximize your Medicare by signing up on time, assessing your drug needs, choosing the plan that's best for you, and taking advantage of screenings, telehealth services, and wellness benefits. Such actions can not only boost your health but they may also save you a lot of money.

Longtime Fool specialist Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, owns no shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.