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The Medicare Initial Enrollment Period vs. the Medicare Initial Coverage Election Period

Tuesday Nolden by Tuesday Nolden | Licensed since 2012
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This article was updated on: 02/25/2016

There are numerous Medicare election periods, each of them serving a different purpose when it comes to signing up for benefits. This article illustrates the difference between the two periods that sound incredibly similar. The Initial Enrollment Period (IEP) and the Initial Coverage Election Period (ICEP) may potentially overlap, making them easy to confuse.

Initial Enrollment Period (IEP)

The Initial Enrollment Period (IEP) refers to the first time an eligible person can enroll in the federal Medicare program. It’s a period that starts three months before the month of your 65th birthday, continues through your birth month, and lasts for three months after it. Signing up for Medicare during your IEP is one way for you to avoid any late-enrollment penalties.

Most people are enrolled automatically ahead of their 65th birthday, but the IEP is the first time people can enroll manually if they have to. You also have the option of enrolling in a stand-alone Medicare Prescription Drug Plan at this time, as long as you are entitled to Medicare Part A or enrolled in Part B.

Initial Coverage Election Period (ICEP)

This is the first time a newly eligible person can enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan (also called Medicare Part C). Medicare Advantage plans are sold through independent insurance companies and must provide at least the same amount of coverage as Original Medicare, Part A and Part B. In order to “activate” your Initial Coverage Election Period (ICEP), you have to be enrolled in both parts of Original Medicare.

The ICEP can run parallel to the Initial Enrollment Period, if you enroll in both Medicare Part A and Part B when you are first eligible. Because you must pay a monthly premium for Medicare Part B, you can opt out of this coverage during your Initial Enrollment Period. Doing this means that you cannot enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan.

If you choose to enroll in Medicare Part B at a later date — for example, during the General Enrollment Period (January 1 — March 31) — then your Initial Coverage Election Period won’t begin until then. When you do enroll, the Initial Coverage Election Period will only be the three months prior to your Medicare Part B effective date.  For example, if you enroll in Medicare Part B during the General Enrollment Period, it will be effective July 1 of that year.  Your Initial Coverage Election Period to enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan would be April 1 through June 30.

If you get disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (or certain disability benefits through the Railroad Retirement Board), your Medicare coverage begins on the 25th month of benefit receipt. Your Initial Coverage Election Period begins 3 months before the month your Medicare Part A and B coverage takes effect, and ends 3 months after the month of eligibility.  For example, if your 25th month of disability is June, your Medicare Part A and Part B become effective June 1, so your Initial Coverage Election Period will be March 1 – September 30.

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