Most Americans turn to Medicare after their 65th birthdays to give them the assistance they need to cover their healthcare expenses. With estimates of total lifetime medical costs for retired couples soaring toward the $300,000 mark, you can't afford not to make the most of the Medicare benefits to which you're entitled.

Every year, Medicare gives its participants the chance to make key changes to their coverage during the annual open enrollment period. With a start date of Oct. 15, it's smart to take the time now to prepare yourself for the choices you'll have once open enrollment begins. That way, you'll be in the best position possible to use open enrollment to get more value out of your Medicare coverage.

Here's some basic information about how Medicare open enrollment works, along with some tips to help you figure out the best way to navigate it.

Paper labeled Medicare on a wood table, with a stethoscope on top of it.

Image source: Getty Images.

What Medicare open enrollment's for

The general way that open enrollment works is similar to what those who've had private employer-based health insurance coverage during their careers are used to seeing. Each year, you're given the opportunity to adjust the way that you're covered under Medicare. The available changes include the following:

  • If you're covered under traditional Medicare this year, then you can move to a Medicare Advantage plan for next year.
  • If you're covered under a Medicare Advantage plan this year, you can either change to a different Medicare Advantage plan, or you can move back to traditional Medicare coverage.
  • You can make changes to your prescription drug coverage, either by choosing a Medicare Advantage plan that incorporates prescription drug benefits into its overall package or by selecting a separately offered Part D prescription drug plan. You can also drop your existing drug coverage or add new coverage.

How long Medicare open enrollment lasts

Medicare open enrollment gives participants about a seven-week window to make changes, with the period beginning Oct. 15 and ending Dec. 7. Changes to your coverage that you make during this year's open enrollment will take effect on Jan. 1, 2019.

The annual open enrollment period is the primary method most Medicare participants have to make changes to their coverage, but it's not the only one. Other special periods apply when certain life events happen, such as if you move to a new area where your current plan doesn't offer coverage or if you become eligible for other benefits such as Medicaid.

Your biggest goal during Medicare open enrollment

Ideally, open enrollment lets you tailor your Medicare coverage to minimize your total out-of-pocket healthcare costs. Many participants make the mistake of focusing only on paying the lowest premiums for their Medicare coverage, but that's only part of the equation. Part B premiums are generally fixed, while various Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D plans can offer very different monthly premiums.

Yet although a lower-premium plan can look like a good deal, the less comprehensive coverage it offers can end up making you pay more in total costs. If the copayments, deductibles, and coinsurance amounts that you have to pay under a plan offset the lower premiums, then what looks like the "cheaper" plan from the premium standpoint can end up actually being more costly. Conversely, more comprehensive plans might cost more in monthly premiums but end up with lower total costs.

The challenge in achieving this goal is that you have to not only assess your current health but also predict how the coming year is likely to go. The perfect plan for a relatively healthy person can be wholly inadequate for someone with a chronic condition. With prescription drug coverage, you can go from needing no medications at all to having a large set of prescriptions if you suffer an illness during the course of a year. That's why changing from year to year can make sense, and failing to do so can be a huge mistake.

Don't miss your chance

Looking at all the options you have for Medicare coverage is a great way to prepare for open enrollment. If you use your time now wisely, then by the time mid-October comes, you'll be more than ready to make the best available choice to take maximum advantage of Medicare for 2019.

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