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What’s the difference between Medicare and Medicaid?

Louise Norris | February 14, 2022

Medicare vs Medicaid

Medicare is a federal healthcare program for those 65 and over, and for younger people who are disabled. Medicaid is a healthcare program for low-income individuals who could not otherwise afford health insurance.

Who does Medicare cover?

Medicare is federally sponsored health coverage for those 65 and over, and for younger people who are disabled. (Medicare covers more than 60 million Americans; more than 8.1 million of them were under age 65 as of late 2021). Most people with Medicare paid FICA taxes during their working years, and realize the benefits of that tax through Medicare coverage. The federal government establishes the eligibility criteria for Medicare.

Who does Medicaid cover?

Medicaid, on the other hand, provides health coverage for low-income individuals who could not otherwise afford health insurance. Nearly 77 million Americans were enrolled in Medicaid as of mid-2021, plus another 7 million enrolled in CHIP.

Medicaid is jointly funded by the federal government and the state in which an enrollee lives. States establish their own eligibility standards and services for Medicaid, within general parameters set by the federal government. Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), most states only provided Medicaid coverage to people who were low-income and also either disabled, elderly, pregnant, children, or the caretaker of a minor child. These populations had to be covered according to federal law.

The ACA included a provision to expand Medicaid eligibility to more adults in every state as of January 1, 2014, but a Supreme Court ruling in 2012 made Medicaid expansion optional. As of 2022, there were still 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid. In the District of Columbia and the 38 states where Medicaid has been expanded, coverage is available for anyone with an income up to 138% of the poverty level. (In the continental U.S., that amounted to about $18,754 in annual income for a single adult in 2022.)

Learn more about Medicaid eligibility in each state, and see which states have implemented ACA’s Medicaid expansion.

What are my coverage options under Medicare?

Original Medicare coverage is the same in every state, including eligibility, benefits, and premiums. A Medicare beneficiary pays the same price for Medicare Part B, regardless of where the beneficiary lives (although premiums for Part B do vary based on other factors).

But a significant portion of Medicare’s coverage is provided through private plans. The private plan options under Medicare – including Medicare Part D (prescription coverage), Medigap (supplemental coverage), and Medicare Advantage – vary considerably from one area to another in terms of which insurers offer coverage, the specific plan designs they offer, and the pricing. Most of the general regulations that apply to those plans are the same in every state. State regulations for Medigap plans do vary considerably, however. Federal rules do not require Medigap insurers to offer coverage to disabled enrollees under age 65, but the majority of the states have implemented their own rules to ensure at least some access to Medigap plans for these enrollees. You can click on a state on this map to see applicable Medigap rules.

What are my coverage options under Medicaid?

Most states use private insurers to administer at least some Medicaid benefits. 39 states and D.C. covered at least some Medicaid beneficiaries through Managed Care Organizations (MCOs) as of mid 2019, but even more states use some form of managed care. If your state requires you to receive Medicaid benefits through an MCO, you have 90 days during which you can choose among the different plans available, but a plan will be chosen for you if you don’t select one. This is called the “choice period,” and once it ends, you usually have to remain in your plan for 12 months.

Many states require adults to enroll in an MCO to receive Medicaid benefits as long as they’re not also eligible for Medicare. But if you have Medicare and Medicaid, then your Medicaid benefits are usually delivered through your state’s fee-for-service program. (This is because Medicaid is mostly only paying for your Medicare cost-sharing and premiums at this point.) Some states use private insurers to deliver specific types of Medicaid benefits – like long-term care – while providing other Medicaid benefits using fee-for-service. (Twenty-two states did this as of August 2017, covering nearly 1.8 million beneficiaries.)

Can I have Medicare and Medicaid at the same time?

As of 2019, 12.3 million people were covered under both Medicare and Medicaid (amounting to about 20% of Medicare beneficiaries). This happens when a person has Medicare because they are elderly or disabled and also qualifies for Medicaid due to their financial situation. Dual eligibles have low incomes and often have chronic medical needs. (60 percent of dual eligibles had multiple chronic conditions in 2018.) To improve their access to health care, the ACA created the Medicare-Medicaid Coordination Office (MMCO) to help align coverage under the two programs. The law also allowed insurers to offer specialized plans that include both Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

Despite efforts to align coverage, the most popular type of managed care plan for dual eligibles is actually a type of Medicare Advantage plan called a dual-eligible special needs plan (D-SNP). As of 2021, about 3 million people were enrolled in hundreds of D-SNPs operating in 43 states.

Previous federal legislation required D-SNPs to contract with state Medicaid programs so that enrollees’ deductibles and cost-sharing were properly billed to Medicaid (the D-SNP would pay the charges covered by Medicare). All D-SNPs must have contracts with state Medicaid agencies. And states can also require D-SNPs to pay for these things themselves and be reimbursed by the state, reducing the likelihood of dual-eligible enrollees improperly being billed. And as of 2021, D-SNPs are required to integrate care with Medicaid programs in additional ways.

You can read more here about Medicaid benefits (i.e., Medicare premium assistance and long-term care) available to Medicare enrollees.

Louise Norris is an individual health insurance broker who has been writing about health insurance and health reform since 2006. She has written dozens of opinions and educational pieces about the Affordable Care Act for Her state health exchange updates are regularly cited by media who cover health reform and by other health insurance experts.

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