Medicare Part A: Key takeaways
- Medicare Part A pays for inpatient care in hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and critical access hospitals.
- You may be automatically enrolled in Part A if you’re already receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement Board benefits.
- If you’re not automatically enrolled, you have a seven-month window of time to enroll.
- Some enrollees who delay enrollment may pay additional premiums.
- Individuals with ALS and end-stage renal disease have different Part A enrollment windows.
- What you pay for Part A depends on your work history.
- Medicare Part A pays the majority of Medicare-approved charges for inpatient healthcare services.
No one plans to end up in the hospital, but it’s reassuring for millions of enrollees to know that Part A covers so much of hospitalization expenses. It’s also comforting to know that most folks who are eligible for Medicare do not have to pay a Part A premium.
What is Medicare Part A?
Part A coverage – or “hospital insurance” – pays for a broad range of inpatient care in hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and critical access hospitals. And, while it does not cover long-term custodial care, Part A does cover some home health care and hospice services.
More specifically, the list of expenses covered by Part A includes:
- Inpatient care in hospitals that provide critical care, including a semi-private room (unless a private room is medically necessary), meals and prescription drugs that are administered while you’re an inpatient.
- Inpatient facilities for rehabilitation and hospitals providing long-term care.
- Inpatient care in a skilled nursing facility (for coverage to be provided for the skilled nursing facility stay, Original Medicare requires a three-day inpatient hospital stay prior to the skilled nursing facility stay, although this has been waived for some circumstances in which a person is affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; it’s important to understand that observation status is not the same thing as inpatient status, and that Medicare does not cover long-term care for people who only need assistance with the activities of daily living).
- Hospice care and home health care services when medically necessary (home health care includes intermittent skilled nursing, physical therapy, speech-language pathology, some medical supplies and equipment, but not assistance with daily living, as that would be categorized under long-term care)
- Inpatient care in a religious non-medical health care institution.
- Blood – If no free blood bank blood is available, Part A pays for patient’s blood after the enrollee pays for the first three units (all of the standardized Medigap plans cover at least some of the cost of the first three pints of blood, and most of them cover the full cost).
- Inpatient mental health care in a psychiatric facility (limited to 190 days in the enrollee’s lifetime).
How do I enroll in Medicare Part A?
If you are already receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement Board benefits, the government automatically enrolls you in Medicare Part A at no cost when you reach 65. Look for your Medicare card to automatically arrive in the mail three months prior to your 65th birthday (or the 25th month of a disability, as you become eligible for Medicare after two years of being disabled and receiving Social Security Disability benefits).
Individuals who are not automatically enrolled in Medicare Part A have a seven-month window of time to enroll, beginning three months prior to the month they turn 65.
If you’re not eligible for premium-free Medicare Part A and you delay your enrollment until after the seven-month window surrounding your 65th birthday, you’ll be subject to additional premiums for Part A (most people are eligible for premium-free Part A, but if you or your spouse haven’t paid at least ten years of payroll taxes, you’d have to pay for Medicare Part A; if you’re qualifying for premium-free Medicare based on your spouse’s work record, you spouse has to be at least 62 years old).
Regardless of age, individuals suffering from ALS receive their Medicare Part A card through the mail the month their disability benefits begin (and there is no longer a five-month waiting period for disability benefits to begin after an ALS diagnosis). People with end-stage renal disease (kidney failure) are also eligible for Medicare coverage, starting either the fourth month of dialysis or, if the patient enrolls in a home-dialysis program, the first month of dialysis.
What does Medicare Part A cost?
How much you pay for Medicare Part A coverage depends on your work history. If you or your spouse worked and paid into Medicare through payroll taxes for 10 or more years, you pay nothing each month for Part A (if you’re qualifying based on your spouse’s work record, you spouse must be at least 62 years old — if not, you have to pay for Medicare Part A even if your spouse paid payroll taxes for 10+ years).
There are some requirements to be aware of in terms of the length of the marriage if you’re enrolling based on your spouse’s work history. Also, since the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional in 2013, the Social Security Administration has begun processing premium-free Medicare A enrollments based on the work history of enrollees’ same-sex partners.
If you or your spouse worked and paid into Medicare for between 7.5 and 10 years, you’ll pay $259 a month for Medicare A in 2021. If the work history was less than 7.5 years, the premium is $471 a month. These amounts tend to increase slightly each year, and are projected to increase to $274 and $499, respectively, in 2022.
Medicare Part A pays the majority of the Medicare-approved charges for inpatient health care services. However, you must pay a deductible ($1,484 in 2021; projected to increase to $1,556 in 2022) for each benefit period before coverage kicks in, and there are flat dollar coinsurance charges that apply to extended hospital stays. If your hospitalization lasts more than 60 days in 2021, you’ll pay $371 per day coinsurance for days 61 through 90, in addition to the deductible you already paid for that benefit period (if you are discharged from the hospital before 60 days, you only pay the deductible). For 2022, this coinsurance for days 61 through 90 is projected to increase to $389/day.
If you’re hospitalized for longer than 90 days, you have 60 lifetime “reserve days” that you can use — during those days, you’ll pay $742 per day in 2021 (projected to increase to $778 per day in 2022). Once the reserve days are used up, Medicare doesn’t pay any additional charges during that benefit period (a benefit period begins on the day you’re admitted to the hospital, and ends when you’ve been out of the hospital for 60 days). It’s rare for beneficiaries to be hospitalized more than 60 days, but not unheard of — which is why a Medigap supplement is an important part of full medical coverage in retirement, for people who don’t have supplemental coverage from an employer-sponsored plan or Medicaid.
Medigap supplements are important even for beneficiaries with more modest medical needs, as most of the available plans will cover some or all of the Part A deductible, as well as the per-day costs that would otherwise have to be paid for an extensive hospital stay. Medigap plans also pick up a large portion of the out-of-pocket costs that beneficiaries would otherwise have to pay for services covered by Medicare Part B.