Can I Still Switch My Insurance?

Q: A couple of weeks ago you published an article talking about switching insurance. In that article you talked about cancer being the reason to change. I don’t have cancer, but can I still switch my insurance?

A: What you appear to be asking about is enrollment periods or opportunities to change your insurance.

Enrollment periods are the time frames during which you are allowed to enroll or change your insurance. For the purposes of this discussion, I am sticking with Medicare Part D. Each part of Medicare (A, B and D) has different rules. If you have a Medicare Advantage Plan with prescription drug coverage, then these enrollment periods apply to your situation as well. Medicare Part D Annual Enrollment Period is Oct. 15 to Dec. 7 each year.

There are different Special Enrollment Periods for Medicare Part D and Medicare Part B.

There are at least 16 different qualifying situations that enable you to have a Special Enrollment Period. I will use the next two articles to review the 16 SEPs.

1. You have creditable drug coverage and lose creditable coverage through no fault of your own.

2. You choose to change employer/union coverage (through either current or past employment).

3. You are institutionalized.

4. You are enrolled in a State Pharmaceutical Assistance Program (EPIC for New York, PACE for Pennsylvania).

5. You have Medicaid, Medicare Savings Program, Supplemental Security Income or Low Income Subsidy (Extra Help).

6. You want to disenroll from a Medicare Private Health Plan with drug coverage for the first time (HMO & PPO).

7. You enroll in or disenroll from Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly

8. You permanently change your home address.

9. You have had Medicare eligibility issues.

10. You are eligible or lose eligibility for a Special Needs Plan

11. You experience contract violations or enrollment errors.

12. Your plan no longer offers Medicare Drug Coverage.

13. You disenroll from your Medicare Advantage plan during the Medicare Advantage Disenrollment Period.

14. You qualify for a new Part D initial enrollment period because you are turning 65.

15. You want to enroll in a five-star Medicare Advantage or Part D plan.

16. You experience an “exceptional circumstance.”

Now that is quite a list, especially since each one of those may involve a number of different circumstances. I will explain these as best I can. If you think you qualify for any of these, you should contact CMS at 1-800-medicare or or contact the Medicare Rights center at or 1-800-333-4114.

1. You have drug coverage, and you have lost that coverage through no fault of your own. This does not mean you stop paying your premium. This could happen when the plan you are in changes its coverage and is no longer creditable, or it stops providing drug coverage at all.

This also applies when you are newly eligible for a creditable plan. A situation might be that your spouse gets a new job or new health insurance coverage which is creditable, and you decide to enroll into that plan instead of Medicare Part D. This SEP gives you the right to do just that without any penalty later.

2. Changing your employer/union coverage is probably one of the most common situations we run into. This could result from a person deciding to retire on his own; his company leaving the area, thereby being out of a job or deciding you can’t afford the premiums for the plan any longer. This also could be used to enroll in an employee-sponsored plan. Most situations involve disenrolling from an employee plan, and therefore needing to sign up with a Medicare Part D plan. This SEP gives you a two-month period of time to pick a Part D plan and enroll in that plan.

3. This SEP happens when you move into or out of a “qualified institutional facility.” In our region, that is most likely a skilled nursing facility. It is not an adult home or assisted-living facility. It could also be an institution like prison, but that is much less common. When you move into a facility and you expect to be there awhile you can switch plans, join or disenroll once a month. I certainly don’t recommend changing your drug plan that often, but you can. When you leave the facility, you have two months to switch plans, enroll in or disenroll from a Part D plan.

4. EPIC/PACE is probably the next most common SEP used. If you are enrolled in EPIC, become newly eligible for EPIC, or lose EPIC you are given a SEP to change your Medicare Part D. The first situation, for those who are currently enrolled, EPIC gives you a once-per-year opportunity to switch to a different plan (outside of the normal enrollment periods). The other two situations, where you are new to EPIC or you lose EPIC coverage; EPIC gives you an opportunity to join a Medicare Part D plan. This is not an opportunity to disenroll from Medicare Part D.

5. If you have Medicaid, the Medicare Savings Program or the Low Income Subsidy (Extra Help), you can switch your Medicare Part D plan on a monthly basis. As I said before, I do not recommend switching your plan this often, but if you find the plan you chose does not cover your medications you can find a plan that does provide the coverage you need and switch plans.

6. This SEP is only for first time enrollees in a Medicare Advantage Plan. If you have joined a Medicare Advantage Plan for the first time ever and you don’t like it, or don’t feel it gives you the coverage you were promised, you can disenroll from the plan within the first 12 months you have coverage. At that time, you go back to Original Medicare and a Stand Alone Medicare Part D plan. This particular SEP is only good once a lifetime.

7. This SEP is probably not something you are going to come across. A PACE (not the Pennsylvania type) is not very common in our area. Cattaraugus County does have a PACE program, and it is called “Total Senior Care” and is based in Olean. If you are newly enrolled in Total Senior Care or are leaving the care of this program, you have an opportunity to switch to leave your old insurance (and get the PACE) or disenroll from the PACE and enroll in an alternate Medicare Advantage Plan or Part D plan. There are no approved PACE programs in Chautauqua County.

8. You have permanently moved to a new location. If you move within your county you do not have this SEP. If you move to a different county or state, you may be eligible to switch your Part D plan. You may also have to switch if your current insurance plan is not offered there. Each county has different plans available to those who live there. An example: if you have an HMO with drug coverage and your insurance choice is not offered in a new region (in Albany), you have a right to switch plans the month before you move and two months after you move.

Once you notify your plan, you have two months to find and enroll in a new plan. If your plan is notified by CMS that you have moved, you will be disenrolled six months after the notification. You can change anytime within these six months or the following two months, giving you a total of eight months from the date you move to join or switch plans.

This SEP also can be used in unusual circumstances. This SEP also qualifies those who have moved back to the U.S. from another country. This also qualifies those who have been released from prison to join a plan. (An individual in prison is not qualified to join Medicare or a Medicare Part D plan.) In this situation, the individual has three months, the month before the move/release, and the two months after.

The remainder of the SEPs I will review in my next article.