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Evaluating the costs and benefits of your Medicare choices

Because Medicare has substantial gaps in its coverage, people need some kind of supplemental insurance. There are four basic types:

  • Employer-sponsored retiree plans , including plans for retired career military and union workers
  • Medigap policies (which must be combined with Part D stand-alone plans)
  • Medicare Advantage plans
  • Medicaid

Usually people should look for the lowest-cost plans that meet their needs. If they have employer retiree coverage, for instance, they will usually have five or six options to choose among, some of which could be more comprehensive (and expensive) than they need. For those who do not have employer plans, the choices will be among the Advantage plans, Medigap policies, and Part D plans available in their areas.

It also helps for people to have a general idea of how much health care could cost them during retirement, since that may influence their choice of coverage at age 65. For those in good health, costs may be reasonable in early retirement. Thus a healthy 65-year-old who enrolls in a Medicare Advantage HMO plan may pay less than $2,500 a year in health care costs, including Part B premiums.

But in later years retirees tend to use more medical services and their costs often rise sharply. Over the course of a long retirement, they can easily spend more than $125,000 a person. Fidelity Investments, for example, estimates that a 65-year-old couple who retire in 2017 and who do not have an employer supplement will pay $275,000 for health care during their retirement. Fidelity’s estimate is in today’s dollars, after taxes.

If nothing else, 65-year-olds might want to look at how much they expect to pay for health care this year and then increase that number by 4% a year over a 25-year-period — to age 90. If they spend $2,500 on health care this year and that amount grows by 4% a year, in 25 years they will each have spent more than $100,000.

Recent articles and studies about retirement healthcare costs

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Fidelity Investments’ most recent estimate is that a 65-year-old couple retiring in 2017 will pay $275,000 for health care during their retirement. This estimate, which Fidelity released in late August, is almost 6% higher than last year’s $260,000 number. Since Fidelity’s first began estimating retirement health care expenses in 2002, costs have grown by more than 70%. The estimates assume that the retiring couple does not have employer coverage to supplement Medicare. Life expectancies are that the husband will live to age 86 and the wife to age 88. Those life expectancies are based on the Society of Actuaries 2016 mortality tables. Here’s a link to Fidelity’s press release.

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People who have Medigap policies use 24% more health care services than do people with other types of Medicare supplemental coverage, according to a study in the Journal of Econometrics. The primary reason for the extra use, the study’s authors found, is that many Medigap policyholders who are in good health use more medical services than they need to. They do so because their Medigap benefits are so comprehensive that there’s no cost for additional doctors’ office visits and treatments. The authors say that this creates a “moral hazard,” a situation in which people use more services than they should because there’s no cost in doing so. The authors based their findings on two large sets of Medicare records. Link to study abstract.

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It’s well known that health care spending rises as people grow older. But a new report indicates that there’s a widening gap between the cost of health care for a 65-year-old, for instance, and an 85-year-old. Based on an analysis of Medicare records over an 11-year period, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s The Rising Cost of Living Longer was published in January 2015. Among other things, the analysis found that Medicare per capita spending for 85-year-olds in 2011 was 2.5 times greater than for 65-year-olds. That is a bigger gap than in 2000, when the ratio was 2.3 times. The researchers also found that Medicare’s per capita spending for people ages 90 and older has grown at a faster rate than it has for younger beneficiaries. And while Medicare’s per capita costs are not the same as a senior’s out-of-pocket costs, the trend lines are similar.

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New studies have raised questions about the need to purchase long-term care, or LTC, insurance. In June of 2014 a team of Rand Corporation economists published an analysis, abstracted here, that was based on two decades of nursing home data. The analysis included interviews with decedents’ surviving family members about the duration of end-of-life stays, which are sometimes not accurately captured in nursing home records. The Rand economists concluded that while the probability of needing long-term care is greater than previously thought, the average length of stay is much shorter – just over one year. Then, using the Rand data, the Center for Retirement Research revised its model for the likelihood of needing long-term care, publishing the results in November, 2014. The authors said that the more recent data indicate that disability and the use of LTC are declining, and that the value of long-term care insurance is less than earlier believed since average stays are shorter and therefore cost less than previously thought.

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It’s hardly news that seniors are frequently perplexed by Medicare’s complex plan choices. But a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation provides specifics about how people cope with the confusion. The report is based on feedback from nine focus groups in four cities. In many instances people used a simple though not necessarily cost-effective method to select coverage. For instance, some said that they chose a plan because they were familiar with its name, e.g., AARP. Others selected a plan because their spouses were already enrolled in those plans. Most of the seniors in the focus groups said that they found the initial selection process so frustrating that they were reluctant to switch plans later, even though they might save money by doing so. And the few individuals who did switch coverage usually did so in order to continue seeing their doctor or because their plan’s drug costs spiked. The full report can be found here.

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Seniors’ out-of-pocket spending for health care declined slightly after the 2008 recession, according to research published in Health Affairs last month (May, 2014). Using Medicare’s definition, out-of-pocket spending does not include premiums for private health insurance – Medicare Advantage, Medigap, and employer plans – but does include Part B premiums. Seniors averaged paying $2,440 out-of-pocket for health care in 2010. That was four-tenths of a percentage point less than they had paid in 2008. But if you total payments from all sources including those from Medicare, the average cost of health care for a Medicare beneficiary 65 or older was more than $18,000 in 2010. That amount had grown an average annual rate of 4.1% since 2002. An abstract of the report is here.

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A May 2013 study sponsored by the Society of Actuaries found that a person who retires at 65 and lives 20 additional years will spend $146,400 for health care. The study also estimated that if someone retires at age 55, he or she will pay an additional $226,000 for health care ($372,400 total). The study used data from the Health Care Cost Institute, which has cost records for 1.2 million people enrolled in Medicare fee-for-service plans. The members of the Society of Actuaries help to set health insurance premiums for most plans. The press release summarizing the findings is at this link (where the full report can also be downloaded).


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Medicare Money Matters

A quarterly blog

 

  • Using your computer to find the right Medicare Advantage plan

    Sometime later this year, Medicare Advantage plans will pass employer retiree plans as the most widely held type of Medicare insurance. Currently there are 20 million people in Advantage plans, more than twice the number ten years ago.

    While total Medicare enrollment has grown at slightly more than 3% a year during the last decade, Advantage plan enrollment has increased twice as fast.

    To keep pace with the influx of new enrollees, insurance companies have been rolling out additional Advantage plans. There are 283 more this year than last year, or a total of 2,317 plans, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

    That’s the most since 2009, when generous government subsidies encouraged insurers to flood the market with plans.

    This year’s expansion has a potential upside. As the newer Advantage plans vie for market share, they need to offer attractive benefit packages. And that might put pressure on older plans to follow suit.

    The downside is that even before this year’s additions, in most parts of the country there were already too many Advantage plans. Retirees often complain in surveys that they are overwhelmed by having so many choices. This year, for instance, the average Medicare beneficiary can choose among 21 Advantage plans, according to Kaiser Family Foundation data.

    How do you sort through so many plans to identify the one that’s best for you? If you live in an urban area, your chances of finding an excellent plan are good. But if you live in the country, that may not be the case. This year there are 149 counties that do not have any Advantage plans and another 45 counties with only one plan. And more than one-fourth of U. S. counties have five or fewer plans.

    Even if you live in a remote outpost where there’s only one Advantage plan, you need to do some homework to avoid unpleasant surprises later. If you are computer savvy, you can easily find out quite a bit about a plan online. Or if you don’t want to do the research yourself, you can contact your nearest Medicare counseling agency for assistance.

    To do your own research, you’ll use the Medicare web site’s Plan Finder. There you can rank your area’s Advantage plans in various ways – by monthly premiums, costs for the prescription drugs you take, quality ratings, and so on. And by clicking on a plan’s name, you can see its benefits in greater detail. Here are the steps to follow:

    First, rank the plans by their costs for the Rx drugs you take

    Using Medicare’s Plan Finder and these step-by-step instructions, enter the names, dosages, and monthly quantities of the drugs that you take. If you do not take any prescription drugs, skip the drug entry and go directly to a list of the Advantage plans in your area. Then you can begin the sorting process.

    Let’s say you live in Atlanta, Georgia, and do not take any prescription drugs. When you sort the list of the 21 Advantage plans in the Atlanta area by their drug premiums, you see that 8 of them have annual premiums exceeding $400. That is too much to pay if you do not take any Rx drugs, and so you disregard these 8 plans and concentrate on the remaining 13.

    Within a couple of minutes, you can probably trim the remaining list down to 2 or 3 plans based on what you want in a plan. Possibly one of your doctors told you she is not in any Advantage plan networks. That leaves as your only choice an Advantage PPO plan. And among the 13 remaining Atlanta-area Advantage plans on your list, only two are PPO’s.

    Or maybe you want to consider only the plans that have at least a four-star quality rating from Medicare. In that case, only 4 of the 13 plans meet that standard. Perhaps you want a plan that has an out-of-pocket under $5,000, which will eliminate all but 3 plans.

    Examining the networks

    After you’ve weeded out most of the plans, the next step is to find out if your doctors are in the networks of the plans that are still on your list. Because the online provider directories for Advantage plans are often out of date, the most accurate way is to call your doctors’ offices. And if your doctors are in the network of only one of your finalists, it is likely to be your best option.

    Continue reading this post

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