Q: Is There Anything Different About Medicare I Need to Know?

A: Yes. While there's been much debate and drama this year over the future of the Affordable Care Act, none of it directly affects Medicare, the government insurance program for people over 65, says Brandy Bauer, associate director at the National Council on Aging’s Center for Benefits Access.

But there are some important changes to Medicare you should know about now that the time to sign up for a 2018 Medicare plan is here. Open enrollment kicked off Sunday and runs through Dec. 7.  Here's what to know as you choose a plan.

Your Premiums Will Be Lower

If you're among the 34 percent of Medicare enrollees who get coverage through a Medicare Advantage plan, good news: You’ll be paying slightly less. The average premium will be $30 a month, about $2 a month less than in 2017. (This is over and above the premium for traditional Medicare.)

Medicare Advantage plans, run by private insurance companies, are an increasingly popular alternative to traditional Medicare because they include benefits such as vision care, dental care, and hearing exams, which traditional Medicare doesn't. A record number of people are projected to enroll in Advantage plans in 2018, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Premiums haven't been announced yet for traditional Medicare—Part A, which covers hospital services, and Part B, which covers doctor visits and other outpatient care. But according to a midyear Medicare trustees report, premiums are expected to stay the same, $134 a month.  

Whether you choose Medicare Advantage or traditional Medicare, you'll also be paying slightly less for medication. The average premium for the prescription drug plans—known as Part D—is dropping to $33.50 a month, down from $34.70 this year, according to CMS. 

But just because premiums are stable or falling doesn’t mean you should necessarily stay with the plan you're currently in. Which doctors take your plan and what drugs are covered can change year to year, so make sure the plan you choose provides the coverage you need, Bauer says.

For help choosing a plan, contact the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), which provides free one-on-one counseling in every state for the 58 million seniors enrolled in Medicare.  

Send us your question about signing up for health insurance through your employer, Medicare, or the ACA exchanges for 2018.

You May Qualify for Financial Assistance

Financial subsidies are available to low-income seniors on Medicare, but many people are unaware of this, Bauer says.

The Medicare Savings Program, administered by the states, helps pay the cost of premiums, deductibles, coinsurance and co-pays. But only 51 percent of those eligible are enrolled, according to a report by MACPAC, a government agency that provides policy and data analysis on Medicare, Medicaid, and the CHIP children’s insurance programs.

If you qualify for the Medicare Savings Program, you may also be automatically enrolled in the Part D Low Income Subsidy or Extra Help program to reduce your prescription drug costs. If you're in the Extra Help program, your co-pay and coinsurance can be no more than $3.30 for each generic drug or $8.25 for covered brand-name prescriptions.

To see whether you qualify for Medicare Savings, you can use the free benefits tool that the National Council on Aging offers at benefitscheckup.org, or call your state Medicare program

Consumer Reports is working with WNYC-New York Public Radio to make sure We’ve Got You Covered during open enrollment. We’ll help you find the best health-insurance plan to fit your needs, answer your questions and explain the challenges consumers face choosing health insurance for the coming year.

You Could Be the Target of a New Scam

Starting in April 2018, Medicare cards will no longer include Social Security numbers. The move is aimed at preventing fraud, especially medical identity theft, but it's actually given scammers a new opportunity to target Medicare beneficiaries.

The Federal Trade Commission says fraudsters are already calling Medicare beneficiaries asking them to pay to get a new card (it’s free), asking for their Social Security and bank account information to get the card, or threatening to cancel their Medicare benefits if they don’t provide that information, among other scams.

New cards, which will have a computer-generated identifier made up of 11 letters and numbers, will arrive between April 2018 and April 2019. Both the new and old cards will work through December 2019. 

You May Have More Time to Enroll

If you live in an area affected by this year’s hurricane disasters, you will have more time to sign up for a Medicare plan. 

Federal officials are giving seniors who live in areas hurt by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria—including Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—or who depend on caregivers in those areas until the end of December to make their choices.