What are the rules for Medicare Part B during the coronavirus?

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Q. My husband, who is 70, has been furloughed from his job and his insurance will end. They have offered COBRA which he was planning on taking, but he is worried they may go out of business and signing up for Medicare B while on COBRA would cause a large penalty. Would Social Security ever bend the rule due to the coronavirus?
— Wife

A. Social Security has made some changes because of the pandemic.

New guidance was published on the Social Security website on April 15, 2020, under the title “A New Way to Sign Up for Medicare Part B.”

The site has information about the special enrollment period.

If you are age 65 or older, you or your spouse are still working and you are covered under a group health plan based on that current employment, you may not need to apply for Medicare medical insurance (Part B) at age 65, it said.

You may qualify for a “Special Enrollment Period” (SEP) that will let you sign up for Part B during any month you remain covered under the group health plan and your, or your spouse’s, current employment continues, or in the eight-month period that begins with the month after your group health plan coverage or the current employment it is based on ends, whichever comes first.

Social Security notes an exception.

“If your group health plan coverage or the employment it is based on ends during your initial enrollment period for Medicare Part B, you do not qualify for a SEP,” it siad. “Your initial enrollment period starts three months before the month you attain age 65 and ends three months after the month you turn 65.”

You may also qualify if your group health plan coverage is based on severance or retirement pay and the job your coverage is based on ended in the last eight months, the agency said.

“COBRA and retiree health plans aren’t considered coverage based on current employment. If you have that type of coverage, you will not be eligible for a SEP when it ends,” it said. “To avoid paying a higher premium, make sure you sign up for Medicare when you are first eligible.”

It also said people who receive Social Security disability benefits and are covered under a group health plan from either their own or a family member’s current employment also have a special enrollment period and premium rights similar to those for workers age 65 or older.

You can learn more about enrollment periods for Part B, read the information about general and special enrollment periods in the “Signing up for Medicare” section Social Security’s Medicare booklet.

You can see the agency’s information about changes in procedure due to COVID-19 on the Social Security website.

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This story was originally published on June 5, 2020.

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