You’ll sometimes see references to Medicare Part C. This is just another name for Medicare Advantage, which is an all-in-one alternative to Original Medicare — meaning it replaces Medicare Part A (hospital coverage), Medicare Part B (medical insurance) and often Medicare Part D (drug coverage).

Medicare Part C plans are offered by private companies that have been approved by Medicare. Most plans provide benefits that aren’t covered under Original Medicare, such as dental, hearing and vision coverage. There may even be coverage for fitness programs (such as gym memberships), transportation to medical visits and over-the-counter drugs. Some plans also offer benefits tailored to certain chronic conditions.

» How to compare Medicare Advantage Plans

Medicare Part C comes in several types, much like non-Medicare health insurance, with different requirements for finding care providers. In an HMO plan, for instance, you need to see in-network health care providers unless it’s an emergency, and you need a referral to see a specialist. In a PPO plan, you can see both in-network and out-of-network health care providers, although you typically pay more to go out of network.

Companies offering Medicare Part C must follow certain regulations set by federal and state law, but out-of-pocket costs and rules for accessing services may differ from plan to plan, and companies can change those aspects from year to year. Compare each plan’s rules, benefits and costs before choosing one that’s right for you.

Advantages of Medicare Part C:

  • Instead of having Medicare Part A, B and D, you’ll have all coverage bundled into one plan.
  • There are typically extra benefits available, such as dental, vision and hearing coverage.
  • Your out-of-pocket costs could be lower than with Original Medicare.
  • You still receive all the rights and protections of Medicare.

Disadvantages of Medicare Part C:

  • Your list of in-network health care providers may be smaller than with Original Medicare.
  • You may have to get referrals or authorizations for some services, depending on your plan type.
  • Your plan may not cover you if you travel outside your service area.

To sign up for a Medicare Advantage Plan, you must have Original Medicare Part A and Part B coverage. Use Medicare’s Plan Finder to find and compare plans in your area.

When you can sign up

You can sign up for a Medicare Advantage (Part C) Plan at the following times:

  • During your initial enrollment period.
  • During each year’s fall open enrollment period, Oct. 15 to Dec. 7.
  • Between Jan. 1 and March 31 if you have Part A coverage and you get Part B for the first time.

If you’re already enrolled in a Medicare Advantage Plan, you can switch plans during the fall open enrollment period or during the Medicare Advantage open enrollment period from Jan. 1 to March 31.