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Toni Says: Waiting too long to enroll triggers Medicare penalty

Dear Toni: I lost my job in October 2021 due to COVID layoffs, and my wife and I are now enrolling in Medicare Part B since the company-paid 18 months of COBRA is almost over. Now I am finding out that there will be a penalty for not enrolling when we should have!

I have never received a Medicare &You handbook to know how or when to enroll in Medicare properly. I was unaware of the Medicare rules until I began reading your column.

We are now 70 years old and the Part B penalty for each of us is 50 percent since it has been five years since we were 65 and enrolled in Medicare Part A. Please inform your readers how important it is to enroll at the correct time when covered by COBRA. — Robert from Charleston, South Carolina.

Dear Robert: There is not an 18-month window to enroll in Medicare Part B when covered by COBRA. The window to enroll in Part B is eight months under a special enrollment window when you are no longer employed full time with company benefits. Waiting longer than eight months will cause a Medicare penalty, whether or not you choose COBRA.

As you know, these penalties can be extremely costly, and that penalty will last until you pass away or are no longer on Medicare.

Make sure that your Part B begins the day you lose your company benefits or the day your COBRA plan starts.

Many Americans who choose COBRA then enroll in their Part B with a big surprise like you have. They are penalized because they could have had Part B but did not. The penalty goes all the way back to the day they turned 65 or when Medicare Part A began.

I have a 79-year-old client who has always been on his wife’s company health plan. He never enrolled in Medicare Part B because his wife was the “working spouse.” But she lost her job. She was 62, and because she had health issues and the cost of COBRA was less than an individual health plan, she enrolled herself and her 79-year-old husband in COBRA.

When the COBRA ended 18 months later, they went to Social Security to enroll him in Part B and were shocked. His premium for Part B was not $164.90 for 2023. It was $164.90 plus a $230.86 penalty for late enrollment for a total of $395.76 per month. This was a 140 percent penalty. He will have to pay this penalty each month for the rest of his Medicare life.

You say, “Toni, how can this be?” And here is the answer: He did not enroll in Part B at the right time or the correct way.

So always have your Medicare Part B in place when leaving your job or losing your company benefits because the penalty goes back to the day you turn 65 and enrolled in Medicare Part A or the month your Part A began. There might not be a second chance!

Toni King is an author and columnist on Medicare and health insurance issues. For a Medicare checkup, email: info@tonisays.com or call 832-519-8664.

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