How Can I Qualify for Medicare Before I’m 65?

Question: I was just denied Social Security disability benefits because I didn’t have enough work credits. I was mainly applying to qualify early for Medicare (I’m 60), because I have high medical costs due to kidney problems and other conditions. Now I’m worried I won’t qualify for Medicare even when I turn 65. What can I do?

Answer:  You have some options. There are several parts to Medicare, with different rules for qualifying for each. Part A, Hospital Insurance, is the Medicare coverage that’s premium-free for those who are fully insured with Social Security. Individuals over 65 who aren’t insured with Social Security can pay a premium to get Part A. Anyone over 65 can also get Part B, Medical Insurance (mainly for doctors’ visits), simply by paying a premium.

Here are the various ways to qualify for Medicare.

Premium-free Medicare for those age 65 or older. If you are 65 or older and you OR your spouse worked for long enough in a job covered by Social Security, for a railroad, or for a federal, state, or local government in a Medicare-covered job, you qualify for free Medicare Part A. Generally you need 40 work credits (each representing one calendar quarter of work) to be fully insured by Social Security. That represents about ten years’ worth of work.

To qualify based on your spouse’s work record (or your ex-spouse’s work record), your spouse must be at least 62. Do you have a spouse who will have enough work credits by the time you turn 65?  Check with Social Security to see if your spouse (or ex-spouse) will have enough credits.

Paid-premium Medicare for those over 65 and older. Those over 65 who don’t qualify through one of the above methods can get Part A or Part B by paying a premium. Note though, if you want to get Part A by paying a premium, you also have to pay for Part B. On the other hand, you can just get Part B if you want, by paying the Part B premium. Also, anyone who is entitled to Medicare Part A or enrolled in Part B can get Part D prescription drug coverage by paying a monthly premium.

How much are you looking at having to pay for Part A if you’re not fully insured for Social Security? If you, or your spouse, has 30 to 39 work credits (instead of the 40 required to be fully insured by Social Security), the monthly premium for Part A is currently $225 per month. If not, the monthly premium would be $441 per month (in 2013 numbers). If you have income below a certain level, however, you can get help paying your premiums through one of the Medicare Savings Programs.

Those younger than 65. Unfortunately, there are limited ways to get Medicare if you’re under 65. You can qualify for Medicare if you are approved for disability benefits from Social Security or the Railroad Retirement Board. However, there is a 24-month waiting period after you become entitled to disability benefits before you can get Medicare. You can also get Medicare coverage if you have end-state kidney/renal disease (ESRD). (For ESRD, you or your spouse need only be “currently insured” with Social Security. If you or your spouse earned six credits in the three years before turning before turning 65 or dying, you are currently insured.)

If your income and assets aren’t too high (and you may not need to count money you spend on your medical expenses), you might want to look into applying for Medicaid, especially if your state has opted for Medicaid expansion. Or, check out the new health care marketplaces.

Ways to get more credits. If you are close to the amount of credits you need (at age 60, you need 38 credits to qualify for disability benefits; at age 62 or older, you need 40 credits to qualify for disability or retirement benefits), you might consider going back to work on a very part-time basis. You need to earn only $1,160 to get one credit, and you can earn four credits per year. Getting to 40 credits (or 30, even), can save you thousands of dollars in Medicare Part A costs over the years. Or, if your spouse is close to being fully insured for Social Security, he or she might be able to earn a few more work credits.

Lastly, you can always appeal a Social Security denial. If you can get approved for disability benefits, you’ll automatically be eligible for Medicare two years later or when you turn 65, whichever is earlier.