September 22, 2016
Seniors Enjoy More Disability-Free Years
Persistent increases in U.S. life expectancy are widely recognized. But if we’re living longer, what’s also important is whether those additional years of life are healthy years.
Even using this higher standard, the news is good.
A 65-year-old American today can expect to live to about age 84 – or about one year and four months longer than a 65-year-old in the early 1990s, according to a new study. But there was a bigger increase – one year and 10 months – in the time the elderly enjoy being free of disabling medical conditions that limit their quality of life.
The researchers, a team of economists and biostatisticians at Harvard, pinpointed two conditions that are the dominant reasons the elderly are remaining healthier longer: dramatic declines in cardiovascular conditions in the form of heart disease and stroke, and improved vision, which allows seniors to remain independent and active.
The study used medical data from a Medicare survey that asks a wide range of questions about the respondents’ ability to function and perform basic tasks. The researchers found a decline in the share of seniors reporting they have some sort of disability – to about 42 percent currently – and most of this decline occurred during the final months or years of a person’s life.
They also tried to identify the primary reasons for the health improvements, though they were cautious about these results. Heart attacks and strokes are major causes of death in this country. But cardiovascular disease is being treated aggressively – with statins, beta-blockers, even low-dose aspirin – and the treatments might have reduced mortality and the prevalence of heart attacks. …Learn More
September 8, 2016
Women Often Quit Work to Help Parents
Here’s just some of the evidence of the enormity of the challenge of caring for our elderly parents:
- One in three baby boomer women cares for an elderly parent.
- Even if they work, these caregivers devote anywhere from eight to 30 hours per week to that parent.
- The estimated value of informal senior care provided by family members approaches $500 billion in this country – or double the amount spent on formal, paid care.
Caring for an elderly parent is usually done with love or out of a feeling of familial obligation. But there are real costs to taking on this responsibility, which most often lands squarely on a daughter’s shoulders. These costs could come in the form of lost wages and employer health insurance or in sacrifices of future pay raises or promotions. It’s also more difficult for older women to find a new job if they drop out of the labor force to help an ailing parent.
According to preliminary findings in a new study that used 20 years of data, taking care of a parent does significantly reduce the chances that women in their early 50s to early 60s are working. Interestingly, the number of hours devoted to caring for a family member do not seem to affect women’s decisions about whether or not to work (though the researchers plan to revisit this finding).
But Sean Fahle of the State University of New York in Buffalo and Kathleen McGarry of UCLA said caregivers “may simply leave a job in order to provide care.” Their paper was part of a series presented at the National Bureau of Economic Research this summer. …
August 18, 2016
How Many Years Can You Do Your Job?
Physical power, fast reactions, steady hands, a crisp memory, and mental dexterity – these physical and mental abilities, taken for granted in youth, break down slowly but persistently over the years.
A unique combination of physical and mental skills help to determine whether each worker’s continued employment is more or less susceptible to aging. To better understand who can work longer and who can’t, researchers at the Center for Retirement Research developed a Susceptibility Index to rank 954 U.S. occupations.
Using the skills required for each occupation in the federal O*Net database, they ranked the occupations from 0 to 100 based on the risk that age-related decline will affect a worker’s ability to perform that particular job. The risk reflects the number and importance of the age-vulnerable abilities.
Click here to see where your job ranks.
Of course, individual workers experience aging in different ways, and some learn to compensate for declining skills. But there are dramatic differences between occupations with very high and very low Susceptibility Indexes.
As one might expect, physically demanding blue-collar work suffers the adverse effects of aging: rock splitter in a quarry (90.3 Susceptibility Index), floor sander (91.0), steelworker (94.4), commercial diver (94.0), truck driver (96.4), and oil rigger (98.5).
Occupations with very low indexes are primarily white-collar: interior designer (5.8), lawyer (6.3), aerospace engineer (8.9), loan counselor (12.4), and radio announcer (14.8).
Where things get interesting is in the middle rankings. Mixed in with somewhat physically demanding jobs – personal care aide (52.7), warehouse order filler (53.7), baker (54.7), postal service clerk (56.3), and food server (58.2) – are white-collar desk or hospital jobs. These include private detective (44.8), surgeon (51.2), architectural drafter (52.8), anesthesiologist’s assistant (53.1), computer network architect (54.8), and critical care nurse (55.7).
After ranking the 900-plus occupations, the researchers concluded that “the notion that all white-collar workers can work longer or that all blue-collar workers cannot is too simplistic.” …Learn More
August 11, 2016
Medicare Advantage: Know the Pitfalls
Baby boomers on Medicare are streaming into Medicare Advantage plans, with nearly 18 million people currently enrolled in them.
But a new study identifies pitfalls that might not be obvious to those signing up.
Advantage plans are HMOs or PPOs that provide both basic Medicare Part B coverage and many of the benefits offered by supplementary Medigap insurance policies. But Medicare beneficiaries’ premiums for an Advantage plan plus Medicare Part B coverage are roughly half, on average, of the premiums for a Medigap policy plus Part B.
One reason is that Medigap policies typically cover more out-of-pocket costs. Another is that insurers offering Advantage plans assemble networks of hospitals and physicians to control their costs and reduce customers’ premiums.
But, the researchers point out, Advantage plans frequently limit “access to certain providers and increase the cost for care obtained out-of-network.”
In nearly half of the 20 U.S. counties examined in a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Advantage plans had limited networks of hospitals, potentially increasing consumers’ costs. Further, a large majority of Advantage plans did not include their county’s top-quality, high-cost cancer treatment center in the networks of approved health care providers.
And it can be very difficult to compare access to care and the future out-of-pocket medical costs that will result from a decision to go with an Advantage plan. Costs vary greatly among Advantage plan networks, with coverage often described in complex, incomplete, or confusing insurance plan documents, Kaiser said.
Consumers also face a dizzying array of choices. One example: In Cook County, which includes Chicago, eight difference insurance companies are selling 19 Advantage plans with 10 different provider networks.
Many retirees learn the ins and outs of the network only after they try to access medical care under the plan. The Kaiser report’s key findings provide a roadmap of things consumer should watch for: …
August 2, 2016
Rising Health Costs a Factor in Inequality
Inequality is frequently in the news. A new study puts an interesting spin on this now-familiar topic: rising health costs are a significant reason for wage inequality.
The cost of employer-provided health insurance is a larger share of lower-paid employees’ total compensation than it is for the people higher up in the organization. Since insurance costs have been increasing faster than total compensation, squeezing out pay raises, the nation’s lowest-paid workers feel it most.
For people with earnings at the 30th percentile of all U.S. workers, total compensation, including the cost of employer health insurance as well as actual earnings, increased by just 9 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 1992 and 2010, according to data in a new study by Mark Washawsky at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. Total compensation for high-paid workers at the 95th percentile grew 19 percent.
However, the rapidly rising cost of employer-provided health insurance took a larger bite out of lower-paid workers’ earnings – and out of their take-home pay. Inflation-adjusted earnings at the bottom rose by just 3 percent over the 18-year period, compared with a 17-percent increase at the top.
Washawsky correctly notes that employer-provided health insurance is a form of compensation that is valuable to all workers, regardless of how much they earn. The problem for workers living paycheck to paycheck is that they pay their day-to-day bills out of what’s left in that paycheck. That’s where you’ll find the inequality from rising healthcare costs.
So how should policymakers tackle U.S. inequality? Warshawsky argues that any prescription to reduce wage disparities should “focus on reducing the rate of increase in healthcare costs.”Learn More
July 12, 2016
What’s New in Public Pension Funding
A small group of researchers at the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog, produces a large volume of analysis of the nation’s state and local government pension funds.
Their work isn’t typical of the personal finance information that appears in this blog. But it turns a bright light on the financial condition of the pension funds that millions of state and local government workers and retirees rely on. The bottom line, according to these studies, is that while some funds are in poor condition, many more are managing.
The following are short descriptions of the Center’s recent reports, with links to the full reports:
- The big picture is updated in the new brief, “The Funding of State and Local Pensions: 2015-2020.” Eight years after the financial crisis, new data have confirmed that pension plan funding stabilized in 2015. And despite poor stock market performance last year, plan funding improved slightly in 2015 under traditional accounting methods. On the other hand, funding is slightly lower under new accounting rules that require the plans’ financial statements to value their investment portfolios at market values.
The appendix in this brief provides funded levels for 160 individual plans in the Center’s public pension database.
- “Are Counties Major Players in Public Pension Plans?” The answer in this report is no, with the exceptions of California, Maryland and Virginia, where counties account for about 15 percent of pension assets.
- While retiree health plans are quickly disappearing at private employers, they remain prevalent in the public sector. These plans are not fully funded, and their unfunded liabilities are relatively large – equivalent to 28 percent of all liabilities for unfunded public pension plans – according to a March report, “How Big a Burden Are State and Local OPEB Benefits?”
- New accounting rules, known as GASB 68, require city pension funds that are joint participants in plans administered by their state, to transfer their net unfunded liabilities from the state’s to the local government’s books. …
June 21, 2016
Too Much Health Plan Choice is Costly
Technology, coffee, investments, beer – most consumers value choice in some aspect of their lives. But what if having too many choices leads to bad decisions and costly mistakes?
Carnegie Mellon University economists Saurabh Bhargava and George Loewenstein, and Justin Sydnor from the University of Wisconsin School of Business, found this to be the case at one company that required employees to select from a menu of options and build their personal health plans from the ground up. The researchers found that the employees typically designed health plans that would cost them more than other plans with similar coverage.
The cost of these choices was large for the average employee – about one-quarter of their annual premium payments in the coming year. An extreme example is the group that chose a plan with a $350 deductible. They paid about $1,100 more in premiums to save, at most, $650 in out-of-pocket spending throughout the next year.
There might be reasons that someone would choose a low-deductible plan – not having enough cash on hand in case of a medical emergency, for example. But in this particular setting, Bhargava explained in an email, “none of these explanations could reasonably account for people paying $2 to $4 in extra premiums to reduce $1 in expected out-of-pocket expenses.”
Further, lower-paid employees earning under $40,000 per year were much more likely to make these mistakes.
Bhargava said that the paradox of too many choices confronts the millions of Americans who sign up online for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – including his mother. In a recent presentation, he said she is “like a lot of consumers” and has “a strong aversion to a high deductible.” …