The Medicare open-enrollment deadline is December 7. Here's what you need to know to choose your plan on time. By Kimberly Lankford, Contributing Editor December 5, 2011 Time is running out to make decisions about your Medicare coverage for 2012. With just a few days to go before the new December 7 deadline for Medicare open enrollment, we asked Silverlink, which provides consumer outreach for Medicare plans, about the top questions consumers are asking about the new Medicare enrollment rules. “Regardless of the proactive education and support that health plans have offered their members and potential members, questions still remain, due to the scope of changes this year for Medicare members,” says Dr. Jan Berger, chief medical officer of Silverlink Communications. SEE ALSO: Navigating Medicare Special ReportWe just celebrated Thanksgiving. Why am I hearing so much about Medicare now rather than during the usual Christmas ad campaign? The deadline for enrolling in a Medicare Part D prescription-drug plan or Medicare Advantage private health plan has been bumped up from December 31 to December 7. So you must pick your 2012 plan much earlier than you had to for past years’ plans. What happens if I don’t select a plan by December 7? Advertisement If you don’t enroll in a plan by December 7, then you’ll be automatically re-enrolled in your current plan for next year. And if you’re currently enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan that is leaving the market in 2012, you’ll be automatically switched to traditional Medicare. In that case, you would need to buy a Medicare Part D policy to cover prescription drugs, and a supplementary medigap plan to fill in other gaps in Medicare. But if you sign up by the December 7 deadline, you can enroll in any Medicare Part D or Medicare Advantage plan in your area for 2012. Why should I shop for a new plan if I’m happy with the plan I have now? Even if you’ve been happy with your current plan, it’s important to check out your options every year. The drugs that are covered under your current plan and the co-pays for your prescriptions may change from 2011 to 2012. That means the plan that worked for you in the past may no longer be your best option. And there could be even more changes if you’re enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan, which may no longer provide in-network coverage for your doctors. You definitely want to review your options if your circumstances have changed over the past year -- say, you are taking different prescription drugs or you use different types of medical care than you did when you last shopped for a Medicare plan. There are some new changes to Medicare coverage that could affect your plan choice. Original Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans must now provide certain preventive care without charging any co-payments or deductibles. This new coverage for basic health care could make a different plan a better deal for you. There are also new ways to compare plans based on quality. You can look for the star ratings which are based on customer-service rankings, when you use the Medicare Plan Finder. Advertisement For more information about choosing a Medicare Part D prescription-drug plan or Medicare Advantage plan for 2012, see Season for Medicare Open Enrollment. What is the best way to compare Medicare Part D plans or Medicare Advantage plans? You can check out all of your options, including the star ratings, which are based on customer-service rankings, when you use the Medicare Plan Finder. See How to Use Medicare’s Plan Finder Tool for information about using the Plan Finder to compare Part D plans, and see How to Compare Medicare Advantage Plans for information about using the Plan Finder tool to select a Medicare Advantage plan. You can also get personalized assistance from your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) when selecting either kind of plan. See How to Compare Medicare Policies for more information about how to find your local SHIP and what types of services they can provide. Advertisement I’ve done my homework and am ready to switch plans. What do I do? Sign up with the new plan either online or over the phone (it’s too late to request a paper application to make the change that way before the December 7 deadline). Your old plan will be notified automatically if you change plans -- your old coverage will continue through December 31, 2011, and your new coverage will begin on January 1, 2012. What if I change my mind after the December 7 deadline? You can make some limited changes after that -- and those rules and deadlines are slightly different than they were in the past, too. If you’re in an all-in-one Medicare Advantage plan, you have from January 1 to February 14, 2012, to switch to original Medicare and choose a Part D prescription-drug plan. Your coverage will begin on the first day of the month after the plan gets your enrollment form. But during this extra enrollment period from January 1 to February 14, you will only be able to switch from Medicare Advantage back to original Medicare. If you want to make other types of changes that will affect your 2012 coverage -- such as ditching one Part D plan for another, switching from original Medicare to Medicare Advantage, or swapping one Medicare Advantage plan for another -- you’ll need to make your decision by December 7. Got a question? Ask Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org.