Medicare Advantage Enrollment Information

Medicare Advantage Plans: The Alternative to Original Medicare

These are the most important things to know if you are considering a Medicare Advantage plan:

  • How Medicare Advantage is like Original Medicare
  • How Medicare Advantage and Original Medicare Differ
  • What Are the Basic Types of Medicare Advantage Coverage
  • When Is the Best Time to Join a Medicare Advantage Plan
  • How to Change Your Mind and Switch Plans

Medicare Advantage Enrollment

Choosing how to receive your Medicare benefits is a big decision. You may know that Original Medicare has recurring copayments and deductibles, but what’s the alternative? Let MediGap Advisors help you determine the right Medicare Advantage plan for your needs.

By Tom Lockwood – Updated Jan 25, 2024  
Reviewed by Whitney Kline  
Fact checked by Misty Berryman  
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MediGap Advisors specializes in Medicare Advantage enrollment, so we can offer you expert assistance. We’re independent from the insurance companies and can offer you an unbiased comparison of the coverage available. You can schedule a confidential consultation, get a quote, or speak with a Personal Benefits Manager with no obligation. We do not charge for our assistance.

Here are some easy-to-understand answers to your questions about Medicare Advantage plans.

How Medicare Advantage Is Like Original Medicare

Medicare pays the insurance company that provides your Medicare Advantage plan a fixed amount every month. That helps keep your Advantage plan premiums low (and sometimes $0), but you will still pay Medicare Part B premiums.

Advantage plans must follow the rules established by Medicare. As an Advantage plan holder, you will retain all of your Medicare protections and rights, such as the right to appeal plan decisions.

Advantage plans must include benefits and services covered under Original Medicare Parts A and B. Advantage plans cannot have higher out-of-pocket costs than Original Medicare for chemotherapy, dialysis or skilled nursing facility care.

Original Medicare will cover hospice care and certain costs for clinical research studies even if you purchase an Advantage plan.

You can sign up for a Medicare Advantage plan regardless of any health problems you may have.

How Medicare Advantage and Original Medicare Differ

Medicare is administered by the federal government, and Advantage plans are administered by private insurance companies approved by Medicare. These companies establish their own rules within Medicare guidelines, so their coverage for Part A and Part B services may have different out-of-pocket costs than does Original Medicare.

Original Medicare has no limit or cap on how high your annual out-of-pocket costs can go, but Advantage plans do have a yearly cap on how much you must pay for Part A and Part B services. That limit varies by plan and can be changed each year.

With an Advantage plan, you can’t add a Medicare supplement (or Medigap) plan to pay out-of-pocket costs like you can with Original Medicare. However, Advantage plans may cover more than Original Medicare, such as dental, hearing and vision services.

Most Advantage plans also cover prescriptions. Medicare rarely does. If you drop a Medigap plan that covered your prescriptions to switch to an Advantage plan, you would not be able to switch back. Although you may keep a Medigap plan that covers prescriptions, you can no longer join one. If you drop an Advantage plan that has prescription coverage, you’d need a Part D prescription drug plan to replace it.

Companies offering Advantage plans may change plan rules, but the companies must notify you of changes before the next Medicare advantage enrollment year begins. Once you have an Advantage plan, you should receive “Evidence of Coverage” and “Annual Notice of Change” information every fall. Companies offering Advantage plans include: Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna, Care Improvement Plus, Coventry, Humana, UnitedHealthcare, and many others.

Basic Types of Medicare Advantage Coverage

Even though Advantage plans establish individual rules, there are basically four categories of Advantage plans available. Those are health maintenance organization (HMO) plans, preferred provider organization (PPO) plans, private fee-for-service (PFFS) plans, and special needs plans (SNP). Let’s see how they’re different.

Can I use any doctor, hospital or other health care provider?

Original Medicare approves providers and providers decide whether to accept Medicare payment rates. Not all will accept new Medicare patients.

With a PFFS Advantage plan, you can see any Medicare-approved provider who accepts the plan’s payment terms. Certain PFFS plans establish a network of providers who contract to treat you. You can also use providers from outside the network, but your out-of-pocket costs may be higher if you do.

PPO Advantage plans also provide more coverage when you use in-network providers, but still offer some coverage if you need an out-of-network provider.

HMO and SNP Advantage plans usually restrict coverage to in-network services with these exceptions: emergency care, out-of-area urgent care, and out-of-area dialysis. Certain HMO plans have a point-of-service option that allows you to use out-of-network services, but that usually comes at a higher cost.

Do I have to choose a primary care doctor?

You usually are required to select a primary care doctor with an HMO or SNP Advantage plan. You’ll also need a referral from that doctor before seeing a specialist. Some services like mammogram screenings do not require a referral. PFFS and PPO Advantage plans don’t require you to choose a primary care doctor or get referrals.

Are prescriptions covered?

SNP Advantage plans must cover prescriptions, and most HMO and PPO plans do, too. PFFS plans may, but if your plan doesn’t, you can add a Part D prescription plan. You may have to pay higher-than-normal Part D premiums if you join after you first become eligible for Medicare.

If you have an Advantage plan that covers prescriptions and you join a Part D plan, you’ll be dropped from the Advantage plan and enrolled in Original Medicare. Part D plans only work with Original Medicare.

Advantage plans and Part D plans are not required to cover every possible prescription, so be sure to confirm that the plan you’re considering covers what you need before you apply.

When to Join a Medicare Advantage Plan

The AEP (annual election period) is when Medicare recipients have the option to either purchase or change a Medicare Advantage or prescription drug plan. AEP enrollment applies specifically to Medicare Advantage plans, prescription drug plans and Medicare Advantage plans with prescription coverage. Policies purchased during the AEP time period will begin providing coverage on January 1 of the following year.

When to join a Medicare Advantage plan:

  1. Every year during the AEP period, which lasts from October 15 to December 7, you will be able to join or change Advantage plans.
  2. If you receive disability benefits, you may join an Advantage plan from three months before to three months after the 25th month of disability.
  3. If you’re turning 65, you also have a seven-month period to join. That’s from three months before to three months after the month in which you turn 65.
  4. You may also be allowed to join when you qualify for Extra Help or Medicaid, if you move to an institution like a nursing home, or if you move out of your existing plan’s service area.
  5. You can also switch to an Advantage plan that has a five-star rating once from December 8 through November 30 of the following year.

If you are on a transplant waiting list or think you may need a transplant, check with plan representatives before joining to confirm the plan will cover the doctors, other health care providers, and the hospitalization you’ll need. And be sure you understand plan rules about prior authorization.

How to Change Your Mind

The first time you join an Advantage plan, you have 12 months to switch to Original Medicare and add a Medigap plan. Whenever you join an Advantage plan during annual Medicare advantage enrollment from October 15 through December 7, you may switch to Original Medicare between January 1 and February 14 of the following year. You can also join a Part D plan then.

You can also drop an Advantage plan or switch from one plan to another between October 15 and December 7 annually.

Give us a call at 800-913-3416, tell us your situation, and let us do the research for you. We’ve dealt with the insurance companies that offer Medicare supplement and Medicare Advantage plans for years. We want to share that experience with you so you can make a well-informed choice.

Health care is one of the greatest challenges you’ll face during retirement, and MediGap Advisors can help!

We do not offer every plan available in your area. Any information we provide is limited to those plans we do offer in your area. Please contact or 1-800-MEDICARE (TTY users should call 1-877-486-2048) 24 hours a day/7 days a week to get information on all of your options.