Updated October 29, 2021
Reading time: 10 minutes
For people with kidney disease, Medicare can help cover essential services like dialysis and transplants—-but the rules are complicated. We can help you navigate the details.
We can also help you sort through your coverage options when you use the Insurify Medicare plan comparison tool. Enter your ZIP code to uncover plan options near you. Safe and secure searching lets you get the best price—try it today!
End-stage renal disease ( ESRD ) is a health condition that causes a person’s kidneys to stop working permanently. People with ESRD require long-term dialysis or a kidney transplant to survive.
Medicare may be available for people with this serious condition even if they are younger than 65. ESRD Medicare covers a range of services to treat kidney failure as well as the usual covered healthcare services and items. But as is often the case with Medicare, the details can get complicated. ESRD Medicare was created after and separately from Original Medicare, so some of the rules are different.
ESRD may entitle you to Medicare even if you’re under 65. If you’re eligible, it’s your choice to enroll in Medicare Part A (Hospital Insurance) and Medicare Part B (Medical Insurance).
Regardless of your age, you are eligible for Medicare if all of these apply:
Your kidneys do not work,
You need regular dialysis treatments or (have had) a kidney transplant, and
One of the following applies to you:
- - You’ve worked the required amount of time under Social Security, the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB), or as a government employee
You’re already getting or are eligible for Social Security or Railroad Retirement benefits
You’re the spouse or dependent child of a person who meets either of the requirements listed above
If you’re not sure about the amount of working time required for Medicare eligibility, you can contact the Social Security Administration ( SSA ) for more information. 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) between 8:00 am and 7:00 pm., Monday through Friday.
If you get benefits from the Railroad Retirement Board, call 1 (877) 772-5772.
ESRD Medicare includes the same coverage as Original Parts A and B (if you choose to enroll in both), including the following care related to kidney disease:
- - Kidney transplants
Outpatient dialysis from a Medicare-certified hospital or freestanding dialysis facility
Home dialysis training, sometimes called self-dialysis, from a dialysis facility, including:
Training for you and caregivers who will provide home dialysis
Home dialysis equipment and supplies
Medications related to treatment (medication is only covered when overseen by a doctor)
Immunosuppressant drugs after a kidney transplant, as long as you had Medicare Part A at the time of the transplant
It’s important to note that in order to receive the full benefits for certain dialysis and kidney transplant services, you’ll need both Medicare Part A and Part B.
In most states, there are agencies and state kidney programs that can help with the healthcare costs that Medicare doesn’t pay. If you need guidance about your coverage options, call your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP).
If you’re eligible for Medicare because of ESRD, you can enroll in Part A and Part B by logging into your account at SSA.org. If you qualify for Medicare based on prior railroad work, Social Security is still responsible for handling ESRD Medicare enrollment.
Your provider and/or dialysis center should send documentation to Social Security verifying that you have ESRD and stating your treatment needs.
You can enroll in Medicare Parts A and B (as long as you enroll in both at the same time) at any point during what’s called your 30-month coordination period, which begins the month you first become eligible for ESRD Medicare —even if you don’t enroll right then.
If you want to delay ESRD Medicare enrollment because you have other health insurance, you should turn down both Part A and Part B. If you enroll in Part A and delay Part B, you lose your right to enroll in Part B at any time during your coordination period. You will then have to wait to enroll in Part B until the General Enrollment Period, and you’ll probably face gaps in coverage as well as a late- enrollment penalty.
If you are unable to enroll yourself due to illness, a family member or other designated party can enroll for you.
This is a seemingly simple question with a complicated answer. (Welcome to Medicare!)
The start date of your ESRD Medicare coverage depends on a number of factors.
This is because eligibility for Medicare based on ESRD works differently than other types of Medicare eligibility. If you’re eligible for Medicare because of ESRD but don’t sign up right away, your coverage could start up to 12 months before the month you apply. This is called retroactive coverage.
If you’re on dialysis:
- - You’re aren’t eligible to sign up for Medicare until the day you begin dialysis.
For hemodialysis at a treatment center, Medicare coverage usually starts on the first day of the fourth month of your treatments. This four-month waiting period begins on your first month of dialysis, even if you haven’t signed up for Medicare yet.
If you’re covered by a group health plan (such as through an employer), your ESRD Medicare coverage will still start the fourth month of dialysis treatments, and your group health plan may pay the first three months of dialysis.
For at-home dialysis treatment, whether peritoneal or hemodialysis, Medicare coverage can begin the first month of a regular course of treatments if:
You participate in a home dialysis training program offered by a Medicare -certified training facility during the first three months of your regular dialysis.
Your docto r expects you to finish home dialysis training and be able to do your own treatments.
If you’re having a kidney transplant:
- - Your Medicare coverage can begin the month you’re admitted to a Medicare -certified hospital for a kidney transplant (or for the care you need before your transplant) if your transplant takes place in that same month or within the next two months.
If your transplant is delayed more than two months after you’re admitted to the hospital (for the transplant or for the care you need before the transplant), Medicare coverage can begin two months before your transplant.
Again, it depends.
If you have Medicare only because of permanent kidney failure, your Medicare coverage will end:
- - 12 months after the month you stop dialysis treatments
36 months after the month you have a successful kidney transplant
Your ESRD Medicare coverage can resume if:
- - You start dialysis again or get a kidney transplant within 12 months after you stopped getting dialysis.
You start dialysis or get another kidney transplant within 36 months after the month of your kidney transplant.
This is another simple question with a complicated answer.
If you have insurance through a group health plan (GHP) like your or your spouse’s employer, that insurance plan will be primary (meaning it pays first) for the 30-month coordination period starting the day your dialysis begins. During this coordination period, your GHP coverage must pay first, and ESRD Medicare is the secondary payer.
Remember that you do not have to sign up for ESRD Medicare immediately if you have GHP coverage. But even if you have a GHP plan, you might still want to enroll in ESRD Medicare. Your healthcare will likely be very expensive, and Medicare might help cover your GHP cost-sharing responsibilities like deductibles, co-payments, and coinsurance.
After the 30-month coordination period, Medicare will pay first and your GHP will pay second.
If you enroll in ESRD Medicare at the start of your 30-month coordination period, Medicare automatically becomes the primary payer when that period is over.
If you do not have other insurance, ESRD Medicare will be primary as soon as you enroll.
If you have COBRA first and then enroll in ESRD Medicare, your employer can choose to end your COBRA coverage, but not all employers terminate your COBRA after you enroll in ESRD Medicare. It’s very important to talk to your employer before making enrollment decisions. If you have ESRD Medicare first and then qualify for COBRA, your employer is obligated to offer you COBRA coverage. Either way, COBRA coverage is primary during the 30-month coordination period, after which it becomes secondary.
Yet again, there is unfortunately no simple answer to this. It depends on what type(s) of coverage you have—a group health plan, ESRD Medicare alone, Medicare Advantage, and/or Medigap—as well as what services you get.
If you have a group health plan that’s primary, ESRD Medicare might help pay some of your cost-sharing responsibilities from your GHP during the coordination period.
With ESRD Medicare, you will be responsible for the cost-sharing portions of Original Medicare Parts A and B. This means that Original Medicare pays some of the cost of your services, and you pay the rest:
- - - For 2021, the Medicare Part A (Hospital) is $1,484. You will have to pay this amount out of pocket before the Part A benefits kick in.
- - Medicare beneficiaries are also generally responsible for a 20 percent coinsurance on Part B (Medical/ Outpatient ) services.
It’s important to note that ESRD Medicare won’t cover surgery or services you may need to prepare for dialysis before your Medicare eligibility begins. For example, Medicare won’t pay for surgery to create an access point for a dialysis machine.
Medicare will, however, pay for costs related to your kidney donor’s hospital stay and their follow-up care. Neither of you will be charged or responsible for cost-sharing.
Here’s a breakdown of what Medicare pays and what you pay for ESRD healthcare services:
|How Medicare Covers ESRD Health Services|
|Service||Part A (Hospital Insurance)||Part B (Medical Insurance)|
|Inpatient transplant and dialysis||Covers the cost of a kidney transplant or dialysis at a Medicare -approved facility after you meet your deductible ($1,484 in 2021). If you’re in the hospital for longer than your benefit period, you’ll be responsible for a daily hospital coinsurance.||Covers doctors’ fees, including fees for transplant surgeons, as long as your provider accepts Medicare assignment. You will typically pay a 20 percent coinsurance.|
|Outpatient dialysis||N/A||Covers dialysis in a Medicare -approved outpatient facility, but you’ll pay 20 percent coinsurance for the cost of each session. Doctors’ fees for certain services and items (like IV iron therapy) are billed separately from the dialysis charges.|
|Home dialysis||N/A||Covers the certified home dialysis fee, including the cost of training you to do self- dialysis, supplies, lab tests, most dialysis medications, and equipment. But you have to pay your 20 percent coinsurance.|
|Immunosuppressant drugs||N/A||Covers post-transplant immunosuppressant drugs if you had Part A at the time of your transplant, you have Part B when getting your prescription filled, and you’re only eligible for ESRD Medicare.|
Note: If you weren’t enrolled in Part A at the time of your transplant, you’ll need Part D to cover these medications.
Across the country, there are hundreds of options for ESRD coverage. The number of plan options available to you will depend on where you live. If you find that your area lacks options, consider checking nearby areas. For some, relocating to an area with better coverage options could create a better environment for healing.
As of January 2021, people with ESRD can choose between Original Medicare or a Medicare Advantage (MA) plan.
MA plans are a type of Medicare health plan sold by a private company that contracts with Medicare to provide all your Part A and Part B benefits. Most Medicare Advantage plans also offer prescription drug coverage.
If you join a Medicare Advantage plan with drug coverage, you’ll get your drug coverage through your plan, and you can’t enroll in a separate drug plan. Some Medicare Advantage plans also offer additional coverage, like vision, hearing, and dental benefits.
You’ll need to use healthcare providers who participate in the plan’s network and service area. Before you enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan, it’s important to check with your providers and the plan you’re considering to confirm that the providers you currently see (like your dialysis facility or kidney doctor) or want to see in the future (like a transplant specialist) are in the plan’s network.
Medigap plans, which are supplemental Medicare policies that help cover the payment “gaps,” are not available in all states to ESRD patients under age 65. In states without Medigap for those individuals, they may not be able to purchase any other supplemental policy and will be responsible for paying all deductibles and coinsurance.
It depends on which Medicare plan(s) you have. If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, drug coverage may be included.
Otherwise, you can enroll in a stand-alone Medicare drug plan (called Part D ). You can enroll in a stand-alone Part D plan as soon as you are eligible for Medicare. In other words, you can enroll during your Initial Enrollment Period (IEP). Your IEP begins three months before the month of your 65th birthday and ends at the end of the third month after the month of your birthday.
Your prescription drug coverage will start the same time your Medicare coverage begins, or the first month after you make your request, whichever is later.
For people with ESRD Medicare, Part B covers transplant drugs after a covered transplant and most of the drugs you get for dialysis. However, Part B doesn’t cover prescription drugs for other health conditions unrelated to your kidney disease. Medicare Part D can help you with the costs of drugs not covered by Part B.
Special Needs Plans are Medicare Advantage plans that coordinate care for people who have certain chronic conditions, live in an institution, or have both Medicare and Medicaid. SNPs customize benefits, provider networks, and drug formularies to meet the specific needs of the groups they serve. All SNPs include Medicare Part A, Part B, and prescription drug coverage ( Part D ).
But SNPs are not available everywhere, and the availability of different Medicare SNPs in a given area can change from year to year. This is because SNPs are sold by private insurance companies who can choose where to do business and whether to participate in Medicare.
In some areas, there are SNPs for ESRD. To be eligible, you must already be enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B and live in the plan’s area. You can look for and compare SNP plans in your area here. Follow these steps:
- 1. 1. Enter your ZIP code.
2. Use the filters on the left side to filter by “Plan Type.”
3. Select “SNP” to see only SNP plans.
Keep in mind that Special Needs Plans are not available everywhere. If you don’t see the option to filter by SNP, then these plan types are likely not available in your county.
In 1972, the U.S. expanded Medicare entitlement to cover the high cost of medical care for most individuals suffering from permanent kidney failure. ESRD is one of only two medical conditions that give people the option to enroll in Medicare regardless of age and without a two-year waiting period. (The other condition is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.)
According to Medicare.gov, you can get dialysis while traveling within the United States. Your regular dialysis facility can help you plan your treatment along the route of your trip before you travel. While traveling, you might have to pay your co-pay when you get your dialysis. Check with the social worker at your dialysis facility to learn more. Contact Medicare or your Medicare Advantage company directly about coverage for travel outside the U.S.
Additional options that may help you pay for services and treatment related to ESRD include employee or retiree coverage from an employer or union; Medicaid (if you qualify), and Veterans Affairs benefits.
End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) Networks and State Survey Agencies can help you with complaints. If you have a complaint, you can complain directly to your facility, or you can file it directly with your ESRD Network. Your facility or Network must investigate your complaint, work on your behalf to try to solve it, and help you understand your rights. You have the right to remain anonymous while your ESRD Network investigates your complaint and represents you. Your facility cannot take any action against you for filing a complaint.
ESRD Networks monitor and improve the quality of care provided to people with ESRD. They can help you with complaints about your dialysis facility or transplant center, such as not being treated with respect, not being allowed to eat during your dialysis, or not being permitted to change your dialysis shift when it conflicts with your work schedule. State Survey Agencies also deal with complaints about dialysis and transplant centers, as well as hospitals and other healthcare settings. Your State Survey Agency can help you with complaints like claims of abuse, mistakes in giving out or prescribing drugs, poor quality of care, and unsafe conditions.
The ins and outs of this special Medicare category are complicated, but you’re not alone in figuring it out.
Talk to your healthcare provider, contact your State Health Insurance Program for guidance, or talk to a licensed Medicare insurance agent for free when you use the Insurify plan comparison tool. You can also find help in your area through the “Find Someone to Talk To” tool on the right side of Medicare.gov webpages.
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Mal Profeta is a writer, editor, educator, and public health advocate. They serve as the communications director of an NIH-funded clinical and translational science research center that focuses on addressing health disparities in Appalachia. A former Fulbright recipient, they hold a bachelor's degree from Transylvania University and a master's from New York University.Learn More