Understanding the Basics of Medicare
Insurance can be pricey, and trying to figure out all of the healthcare options available to you can be exhausting and frustrating.

Table of Contents
powered by healthline

Average Ratings

Insurance can be pricey, and trying to figure out all of the healthcare options available to you can be exhausting and frustrating. Whether you’re new to Medicare or just interested in staying informed, keep reading to learn the basics of this federal health insurance program.

What Is Medicare?

Medicare is a government-funded health insurance program that provides medical coverage for people over the age of 65. You can also be eligible for Medicare if you:

  • have a disability and have been receiving social security disability benefits for two years
  • have a disability pension from the Railroad Retirement Board
  • have Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS)
  • have kidney failure (end-stage renal disease) and receive dialysis or have undergone a renal transplant

This health insurance can be used as primary insurance or as supplemental, backup coverage. Medicare can be used to help pay for medical care and long-term care, but it might not cover all your medical expenses. It’s funded by taxes and, in some cases, premiums that are taken out of your social security checks.

How Do I Enroll in Medicare?

You’ll automatically be enrolled in the program if you’re already receiving social security benefits. If you aren’t already receiving benefits, you should contact the social security office three months before your 65th birthday to enroll. You can apply for Medicare coverage at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/medicare/apply.html.

What Are the Medicare ‘Parts’?

Medicare is designed to cover your essential medical needs, such as hospital stays and doctor visits. The program is composed of four parts: Part A, Part B, Part C, and Part D. Part A and Part B are sometimes called “classic Medicare.” These two parts provide for the majority of essential services. Here is a brief description of each part:

Part A (Hospital)

This section of Medicare covers your hospital care, including various hospital-related services. According to Medicare.gov, most of your care related to treatment is covered by Part A if you have to go to the hospital as an inpatient. Part A also covers hospice care for those who are terminally ill.

For most people with a modest income, there will be no premiums. People with higher incomes may have to pay a small amount monthly for this plan.

Part B (Medical)

This area of Medicare covers your general medical care. Part B covers outpatient care that you may need to stay healthy, including a large portion of preventative services, medical supplies (known as durable medical equipment, or DME), and many different types of tests and screenings. Part B also covers mental health services.

Visit www.medicare.gov for a complete list of covered services under Part B. There is typically a premium for this section of Medicare coverage, based on your income.

Part C (Medicare Advantage)

Part C is not actually a separate medical benefit. Part C is a provision that allows approved private companies (such as HMOs) to provide insurance plans to people who are enrolled in Parts A and B. Part C plans are also known as Medicare Advantage plans. They cover all the benefits and services that parts A and B cover. They also usually offer extra benefits, such as prescription drug coverage and some extra services. Medicare Advantage plans usually cost extra and payments or premiums are deducted from your social security check.

Part D (Prescription Drugs)

This part of Medicare covers prescription drugs. The cost or premium for this plan depends on your income, and your copayments and deductible depend on the type of medications you need.

Which Parts Should I Sign up For?

While Medicare Parts A and B provide coverage for many services, not every medical situation is covered. Long-term care is not considered part of Medicare. If you need long-term care, you can find coverage under Part C (Medicare Advantage plans) or Medigap plans, which are supplemental health policies.

You should also remember that drug prescriptions aren’t covered if you only decide to choose Parts A or B. It’s a good idea to either enroll in Medicare Part D if you need to cover your prescriptions, or to choose Plan C, which has plans that cover some drug prescriptions.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

Knowing which plans are optimal for you depends on your income, overall health, age, and what kind of care you will need. It’s best to read through the services and plans carefully, and choose the plans that work best for you. Enrollment periods are limited for some plans, so be sure you sign up so you don’t have a gap in coverage.

If you are concerned about whether your desired service is covered by Medicare, check out our guide to what is and what isn’t covered under Medicare.

You can also speak directly with your doctor, search the Medicare Coverage Database online at www.cms.gov/medicare-coverage-database/, or contact the Medicare service center at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227). 

Written by: The Healthline Editorial Team
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: The Healthline Medical Team
Published: Jul 23, 2015
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
Top of page
General Drug Tools
General Drug Tools view all tools
Tools for
Healthy Living
Tools for Healthy Living view all tools
Search Tools
Search Tools view all tools
Insurance Plan Tools
Insurance Plan Tools view all tools