Midnight Monday Marks the Medicare Deadline

Monday at midnight is the deadline for enrolling in the Medicare drug benefit. Those who miss the deadline may be facing higher premiums for life. Debbie Elliott talks with NPR's Julie Rovner about who should, and who shouldn't, hurry to meet the deadline.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And now one last reminder. The deadline to sign up for Medicare prescription drug coverage is midnight tomorrow night. Those who miss the deadline will have to pay a premium penalty for the rest of their lives. So if you really want to do something nice for Mother's Day, forget the flowers and help Mom with the paperwork. With us to discuss who should and who should not sign up is NPR Health Policy correspondent Julie Rovner.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So who exactly does this deadline apply to?

ROVNER: It only applies to people who are on Medicare now. If your not 65 yet it doesn't apply to you. If you are 65 but you're still working, it also doesn't apply to you. When you stop working and become eligible for Medicare, you'll have your own special enrollment period to sign up in.

ELLIOTT: Are there also some people on Medicare now that it doesn't apply to?

ROVNER: Yes, there are two main groups. One are people who have coverage at least as good as the Medicare coverage, and if you have coverage from a former employer you should have gotten a letter that said whether your coverage is equal to or better than Medicare's. If it is, you can keep the coverage you have, you don't have to sign up, and in most cases you probably shouldn't sign up. There's another group the deadline does not apply to. Those are people with low incomes, under a $14,000 a year for a individual, under about $19,000.00 a year for a couple. They are likely to be eligible for a special subsidy and they have what's called also a special enrollment period, so they have the rest of the year in which to sign up.

ELLIOTT: Now, what about this penalty that we've been hearing so much about?

ROVNER: If you've missed the deadline and you're eligible for this, then you're going to have to pay higher premiums forever. The penalty is one percent per month, but if you miss the deadline you can't sign up next month or the next after. You can't sign up until the end of the year. So the minimum penalty is basically seven months worth and that's going to be they think about two and a half dollars a month for as long as you're in the program.

ELLIOTT: So this penalty will apply for the rest of your life.

ROVNER: That's correct. And the longer you wait, the larger the penalty will be.

ELLIOTT: Now, what if I don't take any drugs? Is it worth bothering to sign up for it?

ROVNER: Well, that's a financial calculation that you're going to have to make. Basically it's an insurance program, so if you sign up and you don't take anything now but maybe you get an expensive prescription next month or the month after, then you'll have at least some protection.

ELLIOTT: How could adult children help their parents get through this process?

ROVNER: Well, basically you need three pieces of information. You need your parent's Medicare numbers. If they're taking drugs, the exact drugs that they're taking, and you'll dosages of the drugs that they're taking. And from there you can either call Medicare's toll free number, 1-800-Medicare, or you can online to Medicare.gov, and in both cases there are operators are online, there are prompts that can help you pursue this. It's a little bit unwieldy buts it's certainly doable.

ELLIOTT: How long does it take?

ROVNER: Not as long as doing your taxes. A good bit longer than probably buying flowers or candy. I would generally leave an hour and a half, two hours.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Julie Rovner, thank you so much.

ROVNER: Your welcome.

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