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What is Medicare?

Medicare is a federal health insurance program that pays for a variety of health care expenses. It's administered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Medicare beneficiaries are typically senior citizens who are 65 years of age and older. Adults with certain approved medical conditions (such as Lou Gehrig's Disease) or qualifying permanent disabilities may also be eligible for Medicare benefits. Similar to Social Security, Medicare is an entitlement program. Most U.S. citizens earn the right to enroll in Medicare by working and paying their taxes for a minimum required period. However, even if you didn't work long enough to be entitled to Medicare benefits, you may still be eligible to enroll, but you will pay more. There are four different parts to the Medicare program. Parts A and B are sometimes called "Original Medicare." The following is a Medicare overview describing the four parts.

Medicare Insurance Plans

Part A is Hospital Insurance. Medicare Part A covers inpatient hospital care, time in a skilled nursing care facility, certain home health, and hospice care. The majority of Part A enrollees do not have to pay a monthly fee (premium) to be covered under this part of Original Medicare. Medicare Part A does not cover the full amount of your hospital bill. You will share in the cost. You must pay a deductible before Medicare benefits begin. Medicare will then pay 100 percent of the cost up to 60 days in a hospital or up to 20 days in a skilled nursing facility. After that, you pay a flat amount up to the maximum covered days. Your Medicare benefits cover a total of 150 days in a hospital and 100 days in a skilled nursing facility.

Part B is Medical Insurance. Part B of Medicare benefits covers non-hospital medical expenses like doctors' office visits, blood tests, X-rays and outpatient hospital care. You pay a monthly fee (premium) for this part of Original Medicare. The fee can be higher for people with high incomes or those who didn't work long enough to be eligible for Medicare. It is free for low-income individuals on Medicaid. You share the costs for your medical care. You'll pay a small deductible each year before your Part B Medicare benefits begin. Then you generally pay 20 percent of the bill when you go to a doctor who accepts Medicare. Medicare pays 100 percent of the cost of lab services that help your doctor make a diagnosis.

Part C is Private Insurance. This is called "Medicare Advantage" no matter which private insurance company you go to. Medicare Advantage is optional, but to have this private insurance, you must also have Medicare Parts A and B (Original Medicare).