By Beth Donner

Heading into the retirement years can bring many new topics to deal with, and one of the more confusing topics may be Medicare. Figuring out when to enroll, how to enroll and what coverage will be best can be a daunting task. Education is key. Here are some essential things you need to know about Medicare.

Medicare is divided into parts.

Part A pays for hospital services, such as when you have an in-patient hospital stay;

Part B pays for out-patient services, such as when you see a physician or need services like physical therapy;

Part C plans (also known as Medicare Complete or Medicare Advantage plans, mentioned below) and

Part D helps to cover prescription costs.

If you choose to be on “Traditional” Medicare (Parts A, B and D) you will probably want to secure a Medicare Supplement (also called Medigap) plan to supplement or “fill in the gaps” of co-payments, deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs associated with Parts A and B.

There are 11 different MedSupp plans to chose from, identified by letters A through N. As you are considering a MedSupp plan, beware: You are allowed to change to a different plan, but you could be charged more or denied coverage altogether (dependent on your health status) if you initially choose or change plans any longer than six months after you first signed up for Part B.

An alternative to the traditional route is to choose a Part C Medicare Complete/Medicare Advantage plan, which offers a rather comprehensive packaged replacement for Parts A and B; or for Parts A, B and D through private insurance companies. Medicare Advantage policies often charge lower premiums, but your choice of doctors and other providers may be quite limited compared to traditional Medicare.

By the way, are you confused yet?

Under certain conditions, particularly after a three-day hospitalization to treat an acute-care episode, Medicare will pay for a skilled-nursing facility or home health care, but contrary to popular belief, it generally does not cover long-term care.

There are numerous details to navigate during retirement, but few are as important as your health coverage. Do yourself a favor and give this topic the attention it deserves!