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Key Takeaways

There are two healthcare programs in the U.S. that help people access proper healthcare services.
Medicare provides health insurance options to the elderly (those aged 65 and older).
Medicaid provides health insurance options for low-income individuals and families.
While the two programs might sound similar, they are vastly different; both have different eligibility and enrollment processes as well.
Medicare is overseen by the Federal government and provides the same coverage options to all U.S. Citizens.
Medicaid is overseen by the individual State governments and each state decides what is covered and how individuals are eligible.
Individuals younger than 65 who are receiving SSDI for 24+ months may also be eligible for Medicare.
Based on the circumstances, it is possible for an individual to have both Medicare and Medicaid at the same time.

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Medicare vs Medicaid: Understanding the Differences

Key Takeaways

There are two healthcare programs in the U.S. that help people access proper healthcare services.
Medicare provides health insurance options to the elderly (those aged 65 and older).
Medicaid provides health insurance options for low-income individuals and families.
While the two programs might sound similar, they are vastly different; both have different eligibility and enrollment processes as well.
Medicare is overseen by the Federal government and provides the same coverage options to all U.S. Citizens.
Medicaid is overseen by the individual State governments and each state decides what is covered and how individuals are eligible.
Individuals younger than 65 who are receiving SSDI for 24+ months may also be eligible for Medicare.
Based on the circumstances, it is possible for an individual to have both Medicare and Medicaid at the same time.

The American healthcare landscape is vast and complex, with various programs designed to help specific populations access medical care. Two of the most well-known programs are Medicare and Medicaid. While they may sound similar, they serve different purposes, populations, and have distinct features. For those navigating the Social Security Disability process, understanding the intricacies of healthcare options becomes even more crucial as individuals may find themselves eligible for one or both programs depending on their situation.

The interplay between Social Security Disability benefits, Medicare, and Medicaid can significantly impact a person's access to necessary medical services and treatments. As such, being informed about the distinctions and overlaps between these programs can ensure that beneficiaries maximize their benefits and receive the best possible care. In this article, we'll explain the differences between Medicare and Medicaid, highlighting their relevance to those in the SSD community and offering guidance on navigating these essential healthcare pathways.

America’s Healthcare Pillars: The Creation of Medicare and Medicaid


Medicare, established in 1965, was created as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society initiative, aimed at addressing the medical needs of the elderly and ensuring they have access to necessary healthcare services. Before its inception, roughly half of America's elderly population did not have health insurance. The system was established to address this gap, providing health insurance to individuals primarily aged 65 and older.

As the program evolved, its coverage extended to younger individuals with certain qualifying disabilities and conditions. For example, those with end-stage renal disease (a condition where an individual’s kidneys fail to work properly) and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) can also benefit from Medicare regardless of their age. Over the years, Medicare has been expanded and restructured multiple times to better serve its beneficiaries and adapt to the changing healthcare landscape.


Introduced alongside Medicare in 1965, Medicaid was conceived as a solution to the healthcare challenges faced by low-income individuals and families. Unlike Medicare, which is solely a federal program, Medicaid is a collaborative effort between the federal government and individual states. This partnership means that while the federal government sets certain guidelines and provides funding, states have the flexibility to manage, design, and operate their own Medicaid programs within the federal standards.

The primary aim of Medicaid has always been to offer comprehensive healthcare services to those in financial need. This includes many vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 further expanded Medicaid’s reach, allowing participating states to offer coverage to all adults below a certain income level. This expansion sought to bridge the gap for many individuals who earned too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but not enough to afford private health insurance.

Funding Mechanisms of Medicare and Medicaid

Medicare: How It’s Funded

Medicare's funding stems primarily from two primary trust funds maintained by the U.S. Treasury:

  1. Hospital Insurance Trust Fund (HI): This fund supports Medicare Part A, which covers hospital stays, care in nursing facilities, hospice care, and some home health care. Revenues for the HI trust fund mainly come from payroll taxes paid by employees, employers, and self-employed individuals. Additionally, a portion of the income taxes paid on Social Security benefits and a smaller amount from interest earned on the trust fund's investments contribute to this fund.
  2. Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Fund (SMI): This fund supports Medicare Part B (medical insurance that covers outpatient care, doctor services, preventive services, and some home health care) and Part D (prescription drug coverage). Unlike the HI trust fund, the SMI trust fund garners its revenues from general federal tax revenues, premiums from people enrolled in the program, and interest earned on the trust fund's investments. The nature of the SMI trust fund ensures that Part B and Part D are sufficiently funded annually.
young asian doctor talking to senior couple patients in hospital hallway

Medicaid: How It's Funded

Medicaid operates as a partnership between the federal government and individual states, and thus, its funding comes from both entities:

  1. Federal Share: The federal government contributes to state Medicaid programs based on the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP). This percentage varies by state, determined by the state's average per capita income. States with a lower per capita income receive a higher FMAP and vice versa. The FMAP ensures that every state has the essential funds to run its Medicaid program. Additionally, during economic downturns or emergencies, the federal government might temporarily increase its contribution to assist states further.
  2. State Share: Each state provides funding from its revenue sources, which can include state general funds, taxes on healthcare providers, and other means. The amount and methods by which states contribute to their Medicaid programs can vary widely.

It's worth noting that the Affordable Care Act introduced additional federal funding to support Medicaid expansion in states that chose to participate, allowing more low-income individuals to benefit from the program.

What does Medicare Cover?

Medicare is a cornerstone in the U.S. healthcare system, primarily designed for seniors and certain individuals with disabilities. It is divided into four parts:

Medicare Part A focuses on Hospital Insurance coverage. This covers hospital stays, skilled nursing facility care, and some home health and hospice care.

Medicare Part B focuses on Medical Insurance coverage. Plan B offers coverage for outpatient care, doctors' services, and preventive services.

Medicare Part C is often referred to as Medicare Advantage. This combines services from Parts A, B and sometimes D. It operates similar to private health insurance plans and may offer additional benefits not covered by standard Medicare.

Medicare Part D focuses on Prescription Drug Coverage that helps beneficiaries with the costs of their medications.

What does Medicaid Cover?

On the other hand, Medicaid is a program tailored for low-income individuals and families. Its benefits can vary by state but typically encompass hospital and doctor visits, preventive care, prescription drugs, and services like mental health and substance abuse treatment. Some states also provide additional benefits such as vision and dental coverage as part of their Medicaid offerings.

Eligibility and Enrollment: Navigating Medicare and Medicaid

Medicare Eligibility:

Age: The primary eligibility criterion for Medicare is age. Most people become eligible when they turn 65.

Disability: People younger than 65 may qualify if they have been receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) for at least 24 months. Additionally, certain disabilities and conditions like end-stage renal disease and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) automatically qualify individuals for Medicare before age 65.

Duration of Work: Typically, individuals or their spouses need to have worked and paid Medicare taxes for at least 10 years to qualify for premium-free Part A (Hospital Insurance).

Medicare Enrollment:

Automatic Enrollment: Individuals already receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement Board benefits by the time they turn 65 are automatically enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B.

Manual Enrollment: If not automatically enrolled, individuals can sign up during their Initial Enrollment Period, which starts three months before their 65th birthday and ends three months after their birth month.

General Enrollment: For those who miss their Initial Enrollment Period, a General Enrollment Period is available from January 1 to March 31 each year, but late enrollment penalties might apply.

Medicaid Eligibility:

Income: Medicaid primarily serves low-income individuals and families. The specific income thresholds vary by state and can depend on factors like family size and household composition.

Citizenship Status: To be eligible for Medicaid, individuals must be a U.S. citizen and current resident for the state in which they are receiving Medicaid. Non-citizens or pregnant women and children who are lawfully present in the U.S. may be eligible for Medicaid as well, depending on the circumstances and state in which they reside.

Expanded Medicaid: With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, many states expanded their Medicaid programs. In these states, all adults with an income up to 138% of the federal poverty level can qualify. It is important to note that not every state adopted the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and that Medicaid eligibility will vary in each state.

Special Groups: Beyond income, Medicaid serves specific vulnerable groups, including children, pregnant women, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities. The qualifying criteria for these groups vary based on state-specific guidelines.

Medicaid Enrollment:

State Agencies: Eligible individuals can apply directly through their state's Medicaid agency. The process and required documentation might differ between states.

Health Insurance Marketplace: In states that have expanded Medicaid, individuals can also apply through the Health Insurance Marketplace, which will direct them to the appropriate program based on their income and other criteria.

Continuous Enrollment: Unlike Medicare, Medicaid doesn't have set enrollment periods. Eligible individuals can apply at any time throughout the year.

Renewal: Beneficiaries usually need to renew their Medicaid enrollment annually, though the exact timeline and process can vary by state. Click here to find your state’s Medicaid contact information.

What is the main difference between Medicare and Medicaid?

Medicaid and Medicare, while both essential components of the U.S. healthcare system, serve distinct roles and populations. The main two differences between Medicare and Medicaid are who administers the program and who can enroll.

Medicare is overseen by the Federal government and eligibility is based on age or disability.

Medicaid is overseen by each individual state and eligibility depends on income.

Below is a Medicare vs Medicaid chart that further illustrates these differences.

  Medicare Medicaid
Eligibility Age 65 and up except:
  • People with end-stage renal (kidney) disease
  • People with ALS (Lou Gehrig's) disease
  • People who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) for 24+ months
Age varies; each state determines their own Medicaid eligibility rules. Contact your state's Medicaid office here.
Income Requirements None Varies; each state determines their own Medicaid income requirements.
Governing Body Federal Government Individual States
  • Auto-enrollment for those on SSDI or Railroad Retirement Board benefits.
  • If not auto-enrolled, sign up is during the Initial Enrollment Period: three months before to three months after the 65th birthday.
  • Missed the initial period? General Enrollment is from January 1 to March 31, but late penalties might apply.
Eligible applicants can apply at any time.
When Benefits Start The first month of the month following enrollment. On the date of application, or the first day of that month.
Costs Enrollees share the costs of care. Out-of-pocket expenses vary but can include:
  • Monthly premiums
  • Deductibles
  • Co-insurance
Subsidies can help Medicare enrollees with low incomes pay for these costs through the Medicare Savings Program.
States are limited on what they can require enrollees to pay.
  • No cost for enrollees whose incomes are lower than 150% of the federal poverty level
  • Total out-of-pocket costs cannot exceed 5% of a family’s income
Coverage Contains 4 different types of coverage options. Original Medicare (Parts A & B):
  • Inpatient hospital and skilled care services
  • Outpatient hospital, doctor, and home health care visits
  • Diagnostic and laboratory tests
  • Preventative services and some vaccinations
  • Durable medical equipment
  • Mental health care
  • Ambulance services
Medicare Advantage (Part C):
  • Required: Everything covered by Original Medicare
  • Optional: Vision and hearing care; dental care, certain wellness services; prescription drugs
Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage (Part D):
  • Varies by plan
Coverage options can vary depending on the state. The Federal Government requires all state plans to include:
  • Inpatient hospital and skilled care services
  • Outpatient hospital, doctor, and hope health care visits
  • Routine screening and diagnostic tests
  • Laboratory and X-ray services
  • Nurse/midwife services
  • Certified pediatric and family nurse practitioner services
  • Transportation to medical care
  • Tobacco cessation counseling for pregnant women
  • Dental care
Additional options that will vary by state are:
  • Prescription drugs
  • Vision and hearing care
  • Dental services and dentures
  • Psychiatric services for those under the age of 21
  • Services for individuals with intellectual disabilities residing in an intermediate care facility
  • Services for individuals over age 65 living in an institution for mental disease
  • Hospice care

Visit and for specific details on each coverage plan and enrollment requirements.

How Do I Apply for Medicare?

Applying for Medicare is a relatively straightforward process. Here's how you can apply:

Automatic Enrollment:

If you're already receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) benefits when you turn 65, in most cases, you'll be automatically enrolled in Medicare Part A (Hospital Insurance) and Part B (Medical Insurance).

If you're under 65 and have a qualifying disability, after receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits for 24 months, you'll be automatically enrolled in Part A and Part B.

Manual Enrollment:

If you're not automatically enrolled or if you delayed enrollment, you can apply for Medicare through the Social Security Administration. It is important to note that there are specific enrollment periods to apply for Medicare and the General Enrollment Period is January 1st-March 31st of each year.

Online Application:

Visit the official Social Security website at

Navigate to the Medicare section and follow the prompts for the online application. The process typically takes less than 10 minutes, and there's no need to submit physical documents unless prompted.

In-Person or Phone Application:

Visit your local Social Security office to apply in person.

Alternatively, you can call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) to apply over the phone or to set an appointment to apply at a local office.

Special Situations:

If you worked for a railroad, apply for Medicare through the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) by calling 1-877-772-5772 (TTY users call 312-751-4701).

Review and Submit:

Ensure you review the application thoroughly and provide all necessary information.

Once submitted, you'll receive acknowledgment and later be notified about the status of your application, along with your Medicare card if approved.

Medicare Part C & D:

After enrolling in Medicare Part A and Part B, if you wish to switch to a Medicare Advantage Plan (Part C) or want to get a separate Prescription Drug Plan (Part D), you need to sign up through private insurance companies approved by Medicare. This can typically be done on the Medicare website or directly with the insurance provider.

Remember, it's essential to apply for Medicare Part B as soon as you're eligible unless you have qualifying insurance from active employment (your own or a spouse's). If you delay, you might pay higher premiums as a penalty. Always double-check enrollment periods and conditions to ensure timely and proper enrollment.


How do I apply for Medicaid?

Applying for Medicaid involves a series of steps, which can vary depending on the state in which you reside. Here's a general outline to guide you:

1. Determine Eligibility: Before applying, review the Medicaid eligibility requirements for your state. Each state may have different income thresholds, and other criteria, especially if the state expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
2. Choose a Method to Apply:

Online through the Health Insurance Marketplace: Go to the official Health Insurance Marketplace website at By answering a few questions, the system will direct you to either your state's Medicaid application or the federal Marketplace application.

State Medicaid Website: Many states have online applications for Medicaid available on their specific Medicaid agency websites. Click here to find the Medicaid office in your state.

In-Person: You can apply in person at your local county or state Medicaid office, social service offices, or other certified application assistance sites.

By Phone: Call your state's Medicaid office to apply over the phone.

It is important to note that some states have different names for their Medicaid programs. To find the name for the program in your state, click here.

3. Fill Out the Application: Regardless of how you apply, you'll need to provide certain pieces of information to determine your eligibility. This typically includes:

Personal details: Name, address, date of birth, and Social Security number.

Household composition and size.

Income information: Details about your employment, monthly or yearly income, and any other sources of income.

Other financial resources: Information about bank accounts, properties, other assets, and expenses.

Current health insurance details, if any.

4. Supporting Documentation: Depending on your state and situation, you may need to provide documents like pay stubs, bank statements, proof of residency, or other supporting materials.
5. Wait for Determination: Once you've submitted your application, your state's Medicaid program will review it and determine your eligibility. You will receive a notification, often by mail, regarding the status of your application and next steps, if any.
6. Enrollment: If approved, you'll receive information on your benefits, how to access care, and possibly select a Medicaid managed care plan if your state uses them.
7. Annual Renewal: Medicaid typically requires beneficiaries to renew their enrollment annually. This process can vary by state, but it usually involves confirming that you still meet the eligibility requirements and updating any information if necessary.

It's essential to check with your specific state's Medicaid program for detailed instructions, as each state might have its own nuances and procedures for application.

How Medicare and Medicaid Empower SSDI and SSI Recipients

Medicare and Medicaid are vital programs for individuals on Social Security Disability (SSD) because they provide comprehensive health insurance coverage, especially when private insurance might be unattainable or unaffordable due to their disabling conditions. These programs cover a wide range of services, from hospital stays to preventive care, offering protection against high medical costs that many with disabilities often face. By ensuring access to essential healthcare, including rehabilitation, physical therapy, and mental health services, Medicare and Medicaid promote better overall health outcomes and reduce potential complications. For many SSDI and SSI beneficiaries, these programs safeguard against financial hardship, as paying for medical expenses out-of-pocket could lead to significant debt or even bankruptcy. Medicaid, in particular, is a critical provider of long-term care services, either in nursing homes or through home-based services. Furthermore, by covering the medical costs of SSD recipients, Medicare and Medicaid support healthcare providers, especially in communities with a high number of low-income or disabled residents.

Frequently Asked Questions

There are several reasons why someone might not be automatically enrolled in Medicare:

  1. Not Receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement Board Benefits: The most common reason for not being automatically enrolled is that the individual has not started receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) benefits before turning 65. Many people choose to delay their Social Security benefits beyond age 65, often for financial reasons, to maximize the monthly benefit amount.
  2. Not Qualified for Social Security or RRB Benefits: If someone hasn't worked long enough to qualify for Social Security or RRB benefits (typically, this means they haven't accumulated 40 work credits, which usually translates to 10 years of work), they won't be automatically enrolled in Medicare.
  3. Federal Employees: Those who are still working and have health coverage through the federal government might not be automatically enrolled, especially if they haven't claimed Social Security benefits.
  4. Residents of Puerto Rico: Even if they receive Social Security benefits, residents of Puerto Rico or foreign countries are not automatically enrolled in Medicare Part B. They are auto-enrolled in Part A, but they must actively enroll in Part B if they want it.
  5. End-Stage Renal Disease: People with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) may qualify for Medicare regardless of age, but they need to enroll manually. Automatic enrollment is not typical for ESRD patients, even if they meet other auto-enrollment criteria.
  6. Early SSDI Recipients: While people who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) can qualify for Medicare before age 65, they are not automatically enrolled until they've received SSDI for 24 months. On the 25th month of receiving SSDI, they're auto-enrolled in Medicare.

It's important to note that even if someone isn't automatically enrolled, they can still sign up for Medicare. However, they need to be aware of the enrollment periods and potential penalties for late enrollment, particularly for Part B. If someone misses their Initial Enrollment Period around the time they turn 65, they might have to wait for the General Enrollment Period and could face higher premiums because of late enrollment.

Yes, you can be on both Medicare and Medicaid at the same time. When a person is enrolled in both programs simultaneously, they are often referred to as being "dual eligible."

Being dual eligible means Medicare is the primary payer for healthcare services, and Medicaid can cover Medicare premiums, deductibles, and co-payments, depending on the individual's eligibility. Medicaid might also provide additional benefits not covered by Medicare, such as long-term care services, dental, vision, or hearing benefits, depending on the state's Medicaid program.

The coordination between Medicare and Medicaid can vary based on state policies and individual circumstances, but many people with limited income and resources benefit significantly from being dual eligible, as it can provide more comprehensive coverage and reduce out-of-pocket expenses.

Medicare has specific enrollment periods when beneficiaries can sign up for, change, or drop their coverage. Here are the primary Medicare enrollment periods:

  • Initial Enrollment Period (IEP):
    • This is the first opportunity for individuals to enroll in Medicare.
    • It begins three months before the month you turn 65, includes the month you turn 65, and ends three months after the month you turn 65, making it a 7-month window.
    • If you're receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement Board benefits, you'll typically be automatically enrolled in Parts A and B when you turn 65.
  • General Enrollment Period (GEP):
    • If you didn't sign up for Medicare during your IEP, you can sign up between January 1 and March 31 each year.
    • Coverage will begin the month after you sign up.
    • Be aware that you might have to pay a higher premium for late enrollment in Part A and/or Part B.
  • Annual Election Period (AEP), also known as Open Enrollment Period for Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug Coverage:
    • Runs from October 15 to December 7 each year.
    • During this time, you can switch from Original Medicare (Part A and Part B) to a Medicare Advantage plan (Part C) or vice versa.
    • You can also switch between Medicare Advantage plans or join, switch, or drop a Part D Prescription Drug Plan.
  • Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment Period (MA OEP):
    • Occurs from January 1 to March 31 each year.
    • If you're in a Medicare Advantage plan, you can switch to a different Medicare Advantage plan or drop your Medicare Advantage plan and return to Original Medicare. If you switch to Original Medicare during this period, you can also join a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan.
  • Special Enrollment Periods (SEPs):
    • Under specific circumstances, such as moving out of a plan's service area, losing other insurance coverage, or qualifying for Extra Help with prescription drug costs, you may be granted an SEP.
    • The rules about when you can make changes and the types of changes you can make are different for each SEP.
  • 5-Star Special Enrollment Period:
    • If there’s a 5-star Medicare Advantage Plan, Medicare Cost Plan, or Medicare Prescription Drug Plan available in your area, you can use this SEP to enroll in it from December 8 to November 30 of the following year.
    • It is important to note that individuals can only use SEP once during a calendar year.

It's important to review your Medicare health and drug coverage every year and make sure it still meets your needs. Changes can impact the cost, coverage, and which providers and pharmacies are in your network. Missing certain enrollment periods may lead to delays in coverage or potential penalties.

The Medicare Savings Program (MSP) is a federally funded initiative designed to assist eligible low-income individuals in covering some of Medicare's out-of-pocket expenses. Administered at the state level, MSPs help pay for Medicare premiums, and in some cases, deductibles, coinsurance, and copayments. The program has several categories, each with its own income and asset limits, including the Qualified Medicare Beneficiary (QMB) program, Specified Low-Income Medicare Beneficiary (SLMB) program, and the Qualified Individual (QI) program. Eligibility and benefits might vary slightly by state, but the overarching aim of MSP is to alleviate the financial burden of healthcare for Medicare beneficiaries with limited income and resources. Those who qualify for an MSP may also automatically qualify for the Extra Help program, which reduces prescription drug costs under Medicare Part D.

Certain non-citizens who are lawfully present in the U.S. may be eligible for Medicaid. "Qualified non-citizens" include lawful permanent residents (often referred to as "green card holders"), refugees, asylees, and some other specific categories of immigrants. Additionally, many qualified non-citizens who entered the U.S. after August 22, 1996, are subject to a five-year waiting period. This means they must wait five years after obtaining qualified immigrant status before they can be eligible for Medicaid. However, some groups, like refugees and asylees, are exempt from this waiting period. Non-citizens who do not have a lawful immigration status are generally not eligible for Medicaid. However, they might still be eligible for emergency services under Medicaid in certain states.

The Medicare 5-star rating system is designed to help beneficiaries, their families, and caregivers compare the quality of health and drug plans being offered. The rating system uses a set of measures that evaluate plans based on different criteria. A 5-star rating is the highest rating a plan can receive, indicating it provides excellent quality and service. Plans that consistently earn 5 stars are given a "5-Star Special Enrollment Period" during which beneficiaries can switch to these high-quality plans outside of the regular enrollment periods. If a Medicare Advantage Plan, Medicare drug plan, or Medicare Cost Plan with a 5-star rating is available in your area, you can use the 5-star Special Enrollment Period to switch from your current Medicare plan to a Medicare plan with a “5-star” quality rating. Individuals can change their plan once during the Special Enrollment Period, which runs between December 8 and November 30 of the following year.

It's also worth noting that the specifics and metrics of the rating system might evolve over time as CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) refines its evaluation processes or as healthcare standards and practices change. Beneficiaries should always refer to the official Medicare website or consult with a trusted healthcare advisor to make informed decisions about their coverage options. Visit to learn more.

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