Medicare offers critical healthcare benefits to countless seniors. Here are a few moves you can make to get the most out of this key program.

1. Enroll on time

Enrolling on time for Medicare is important for a couple of reasons. First, it'll help ensure that you don't have a gap in coverage between the time you lose your group health plan (say, when you retire and leave your job) and the point at which your new Medicare plan kicks in. Second, it'll help keep your Medicare premiums as low as possible in retirement.

Doctor with older patient

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Though most people who have Medicare don't pay a premium for Part A, which covers hospital visits, Parts B and D, which cover preventative care and prescription drugs, respectively, do come at a cost. Now if you sign up for Medicare during your initial enrollment period, which begins three months before the month you turn 65 and ends three months after the month you turn 65, you'll pay your standard premium amount for Part B. But if you miss that initial window and have to sign up after the fact, you'll face a 10% increase in your Part B premium for every one-year period during which you're eligible for Medicare but fail to enroll.

You'll also be penalized for being late with Part D. In fact, if you go 63 days or more without a Part D plan, you'll face a penalty equal to 1% of the national base beneficiary premium, which, for 2017, is $35.63, times the number of full months you go without coverage. So if you go 20 months without coverage, you'll pay about $7.10 more per month on top of your standard premium. And that's really just a waste.

2. Take advantage of your free preventative care services

Though Medicare itself isn't totally free, the program does offer a number of no-cost services to enrollees, from yearly well visits to depression screenings. Yet a surprising number of seniors opt out of these services, despite the benefits they offer.

Getting ahead of medical issues is not only good for your health, but it can also, in many cases, save you money. For example, it's cheaper for you, as an enrollee, to treat a condition with minor, outpatient surgery than to let it evolve into a bigger deal that requires a lengthy hospital stay. And since you can, in many cases, keep tabs on your health for free, there's really no excuse not to take advantage.

3. Get medical advice from home

Many seniors struggle to get around town and in fact avoid taking care of their health as a result. If you don't have an easy means of transportation but have a health concern you'd like to address, you should know that you have the option to consult with a medical professional from the comfort of home. Thanks to Medicare's telehealth services, you can enjoy virtual doctor visits, which not only save you time, hassle, and gas money, but could also help you get the answers you need sooner than with a traditional appointment.

4. Look at a Medicare Advantage plan

Though original Medicare has its perks, these days, a growing number of seniors are exploring their options with Medicare Advantage. Also known as Part C, Medicare Advantage plans are administered by private insurers but are regulated to ensure that they conform to certain standards. For example, Medicare Advantage plans must offer as much coverage as traditional Medicare, and many provide even more benefits, like vision and dental care. In additional, unlike regular Medicare, Medicare Advantage plans come with annual out-of-pocket limits, which means there will be a cap on how much you'll end up spending to take care of your health.

Furthermore, whereas original Medicare only offers coverage within the country, a number of Medicare Advantage plans provide coverage outside the U.S. If you're planning to do a lot of overseas travel in retirement, it pays to explore Medicare Advantage for this reason alone.

Now the one downside of Medicare Advantage is that it will typically limit you to a specific network of doctors. Still, it pays to compare Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare and see which option better suits your needs and finances.

Even if your health is great, there's a good chance medical care will constitute one of your greatest expenses in retirement. The more you read up on Medicare and how it works, the better prepared you'll be to maximize your benefits while preserving both your health and your income.

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