Medicare Advantage vs. Medicare Supplement Insurance Plans

Fact Checked
Contributing expert: Ron Elledge, Medicare consultant
Reviewed by: Kelly Blackwell, Certified Senior Advisor®, Caren Lampitoc, Medicare consultant
Updated: March 31, 2022

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Ron Elledge
Medicare Consultant and Author
Ron Elledge
Medicare Consultant and Author

Ron Elledge is a seasoned Medicare consultant and author of “Medicare Made Easy.” As a Medicare expert, he regularly consults beneficiaries on Medicare rules, regulations, and strategies.

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Kelly Blackwell
Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)®
Kelly Blackwell
Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)®

Kelly Blackwell is a Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)®. She has been a health care professional for more than 30 years, with experience working as a bedside nurse and as a clinical manager. She has a passion for educating, assisting, and advising seniors throughout the health care process.

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Carin Lampitoc
Medicare Consultant
Carin Lampitoc
Medicare Consultant

Caren Lampitoc is an educator and Medicare consultant for Medicare Risk Adjustments and has more than 25 years of experience working in the field of medicine as a surgical coder, educator, and consultant.

Original Medicare (Parts A and B) covers many of your health care needs, from doctor’s visits to hospitalization, but it doesn’t cover all of your health care costs. You may pay a percentage, on average 20%, of the costs if you need surgery or have other significant health issues, which can add up.

Two options to help cover the costs that Original Medicare won’t: Medicare Advantage Plans and Medicare Supplement Insurance:

  • Medicare Advantage Plans, also called Medicare Part C, are administered by private health insurance companies approved by Medicare and offer another way to receive your basic Original Medicare coverage, including Part A and Part B benefits. Many medicare advantage plans include additional perks, such as prescription drug coverage, vision care, dental, or hearing coverage.
  • Medicare Supplement Insurance, also called Medigap, plans are administered by private insurance companies rather than by the government. But their purpose is different: They fill in the “gaps” of Original Medicare coverage, paying out on copays, coinsurance, and deductibles when these aren’t covered by Original Medicare.

You can’t sign up for both of these policies: If you have a Medicare Advantage Plan, it becomes your primary coverage and is an all-in-one policy that should cover the majority of your medical care needs. A Medigap policy pays secondary to your Original Medicare coverage, and it features a separate monthly premium.

Medicare Advantage, Part C, Medicare Supplement, Medigap? What does it all mean?

  • Medicare Advantage Plans are also called Medicare Part C
  • Medicare Supplement Plans are also known as Medigap.
  • These terms may be used interchangeably as you do your research.

What's the Difference Between Medicare Advantage vs. Medicare Supplement Insurance Plans?

Let’s take a deeper dive into the difference between these two plans. Although they’re sometimes mistaken for one another, they’re fundamentally different.

Medicare Advantage has the following characteristics:

  • It’s an alternative delivery system for Original Medicare, not a Medicare supplement plan. But you need to be enrolled in Medicare Part A and B to join a Medicare Advantage Plan.
  • It’s administered by health insurers that have been approved by the government’s Medicare agency. Each company may offer different coverages at a different price point.
  • You’ll continue to receive the benefits of Original Medicare, both Medicare Part A (hospital and skilled nursing care, and home health care) and Part B (many outpatient services as well as ambulance, clinical research, and mental health costs).
  • Often, Medicare Advantage Plans include extra benefits like prescription drug coverage, as well as vision, dental, hearing, and even some gym memberships.

Medigap plans include the following elements:

  • It’s a supplement plan to Original Medicare. You need to have Original Medicare in place to buy a Medigap policy.
  • There are 10 existing Medigap plans, indicated by a letter like Plan A, B, C, and so on. They’re administered by private insurancers, but coverage is pretty standard within each plan.
  • You’ll still receive Original Medicare Parts A and B. A Medigap policy will pick up some ― but not all ― of the costs associated with these Parts. Select plans may also feature additional coverage outside of your region and even outside of the United States, so it’s worth considering if you travel frequently. Supplement insurance plans don’t include Part D prescription drug coverage, so you’ll need to purchase a standalone Part D plan if you want that coverage.

Comparing Medicare Advantage vs Medigap

Medicare Supplement (Medigap) Insurance Medicare Advantage
Choosing Doctors and Hospitals Any doctor or hospital is acceptable as long as they accept Medicare assignment (most do). For many plans, you’re limited to health care professionals and hospitals within the network designated by your plan provider.
Referrals Referrals aren’t needed for specialist care. You may need a referral to see a specialist within the network.
Network Restrictions There’s no network. Your coverage extends across the U.S. for those providers who accept Medicare. For worldwide emergency services, you’ll pay up front and submit the bill for reimbursement where applicable. You’re limited to health care within your network for many plan types. There may be exceptions if you’re traveling and need emergency care.
Enrollment Apply during your Initial Enrollment Period (IEP), which is the three months before, the month of, the three months after you turn 65. If you don’t sign up for Part B and Medigap during your IEP, the open enrollment period starts when you’re enrolled in Part B and are 65 and lasts six months. Apply during your IEP the Annual Enrollment Period (AEP).
Cost You’ll pay your Original Medicare Part B premium as well as a plan premium. Except for the Part B annual deductible, unless you’re enrolled in Plan F or C, most other out-of-pocket expenses should be covered by the plan. You’ll pay Part B premiums, but many plans don’t charge an additional monthly premium, and some may pick up a portion of the Part B premium. You’ll have copays, coinsurance, and deductibles, but there’s an annual out-of-pocket maximum.
Prescription Drug Coverage Not covered. If you don’t have other drug coverage, sign up for a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan (Part D). Many Medicare Advantage plans include prescription drug coverage.
Do Benefits Change? Not usually Benefits may change annually
Is the Plan Renewable? Renewal is guaranteed as long as you pay your monthly premiums, and there’s no annual election period. Yes, unless you disenroll during the open enrollment period.
For Whom It Works Best Good option if you reside in a different part of the country for a portion of the year or enjoy the freedom of choosing any doctor either at home or while traveling within the U.S. A good choice if you’re healthy and don’t need frequent medical care or prescriptions; also a good choice if you like the simplicity of a single all-in-one plan.
Extra Benefits — Higher premiums, lower copays

— Requires underwriting after your IEP

— Extensive coverage on many plans throughout the U.S. and abroad if you travel

— Benefits standardized throughout the U.S.

— Low premiums, higher co-pays

— Easy enrollment

— Often covers routine dental, vision, hearing, SilverSneakers gym memberships, and/or alternative medicine benefits.

— Extra benefits vary from plan to plan

Choosing the right plan for your own purposes may take a little work. You’ll want to compare benefits, estimate your medical costs, and determine where you can achieve the highest level of care for the least amount of money.

The government has resources to help you. The Medicare website features pages that allow you to compare and choose either a Medigap policy or a Medicare Advantage Plan. Your state’s Health Insurance Assistance Program may also help you work through your options. A licensed insurance agent can also help you sort through your Medigap plan and Medicare Advantage Plan options.

Enroll in Medicare

Most U.S. citizens and permanent residents are eligible for Medicare when they reach 65 years of age. You’ll also be eligible if you or your spouse is a government employee or retiree who has paid into Medicare payroll taxes while working.

If you’re younger than 65, you’re eligible if you have been entitled to Social Security disability benefits for at least 24 months, are receiving a disability pension from the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) or have Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS) or permanent kidney failure (end-stage renal disease or ESRD). Certain life events, like losing employer coverage or moving back to the U.S., may qualify you for a special enrollment period outside of the standard Medicare annual enrollment periods.

Enrolling for Medicare is automatic for most people who have been paying into the Social Security system during their working years. If you decide not to take your Social Security benefits at 65, you may need to sign up with Social Security to get Original Medicare Parts A and B. It’s always advisable to check with Social Security three months before you turn 65 to make sure everything is in order for your Medicare.

Finding a policy and signing up for Medicare Supplemental Insurance or a Medicare Advantage Plan can be done at the Medicare website, although you may be directed to the website of a private insurance company once you choose the option that works best for you. Taking your time with the application is the best way to ensure that you end up with the best Medicare Advantage or Medigap policy for your own circumstances.

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