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Are you prepared for the new Medicare open enrollment schedule? Posted: September 7th, 2011

By Maryalene LaPonsie

For seniors across the nation, Oct. 15 marks the start of the Medicare open enrollment period, which this year begins a month earlier than it did in the past.

Open enrollment runs Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, providing participants with more time than last year's window of Nov. 15 to Dec. 31.

During open enrollment, Medicare recipients can switch between original Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans. This is also the opportunity to purchase supplemental insurance coverage for prescription drugs.

According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, now is the time for seniors and caregivers to begin researching their medical insurance options. Medicare recipients can choose from two options for their health insurance coverage.

1. Original Medicare: This option includes both Medicare Part A and Medicare Part B. Together, the two parts provide hospital and medical insurance. Benefits are paid directly by the federal government. Original Medicare provides affordable health insurance, but benefits can be limited compared to Medicare Advantage.

2. Medicare Advantage: With Medicare Advantage--also called Medicare Part C--coverage is provided by private health insurance companies and may be offered in the form of an HMO or PPO plan. Medicare Advantage plans must offer the same benefits as original Medicare and many also provide additional services such as vision or prescription drug coverage. However, Medicare Advantage plans can cost more and may require the use of in-network doctors and hospitals.

Seniors enrolled in original Medicare can also use the open enrollment period to select a separate Medicare Part D plan to pay for their prescription drugs. Most Medicare Advantage health insurance plans include Part D coverage, but any senior choosing a plan without this coverage can purchase a Part D plan during open enrollment as well.

Medicare open enrollment dates for 2012 start next month

For seniors changing their health plan during the fall open enrollment dates of Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, new coverage will begin on Jan. 1, 2012 and be in effect for a year.

In addition to the regular open enrollment period, seniors will have a second chance to change their health insurance coverage from Jan. 1, 2012 to Feb. 14, 2012. During this time frame, Medicare recipients can drop their Medicare Advantage plan and return to original Medicare. They can also purchase a Medicare Part D plan if needed. However, individuals cannot switch from one Medicare Advantage plan to another or leave original Medicare during this second enrollment period.