October 18, 2016
Fewer, Clearer Medicare Part D Choices
A decade ago, the nation’s Medicare enrollees had more than 1,800 different prescription drug plans to choose from. In the 2017 open enrollment that started on Oct. 15, that number dropped to just 746.
News of higher Part D drug plan premiums and out-of-pocket costs in 2017, estimated in a new report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, will not be welcome by the nation’s older population. But Squared Away also wanted to know whether fewer plan options are good or bad for consumers.
“It’s good in the sense [federal] efforts are bearing fruit in giving people options that are more distinct from each other than in the past,” said Juliette Cubanski, Kaiser’s associate director of Medicare policy. At the same, she said, retirees “still have a lot of choice in this marketplace.”
The number of plans has shrunk steadily for a variety of reasons since the 2006 inception of the prescription component of Medicare, known as Part D. In the early years of the program, plans started disappearing amid consolidation among insurers and pharmacy benefits managers, she said. More recently, a few Part D plan providers have pulled out of the market.
But Cubanski said recent reductions in the number of plans were primarily by federal design. In 2011, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) stepped in and began requiring insurers that offered more than one Part D plan in a region to make sure the differences among their plans were clear and distinct to Medicare beneficiaries. …Learn More
October 13, 2016
Medicare Enrollment Help is Plentiful
Open enrollment starts Oct. 15 for people who’ve signed up for Medicare and must buy into or change their supplemental Advantage or Part D prescription drug plans.
The Medicare Rights Center in New York tells me that you can “make as many changes as you need during this period” and that “only your last coverage choice will take effect Jan. 1.”
A long list of resources appears at the end of this blog to help Medicare beneficiaries through the enrollment process. But there’s a lot of hoopla around the Oct. 15-Dec. 7 enrollment period, so it’s important to know what Oct. 15 is not about.
One’s birthday – and not a date on the calendar – determines when people should initially enroll in the Medicare program. Most people turning 65 who are not covered by their own or their spouse’s employer health insurance at work are required to enroll in Medicare Parts A and B during a seven-month period that starts three months prior to their 65th birthday. During this seven-month window, new Medicare participants must also sign up for their Part D drug plans – or risk paying a lifelong penalty. Oct. 15 is not the trigger date for selecting Medigap plans either.
Here’s what the Medicare open enrollment that starts Oct. 15 is about: figuring out the right Advantage or Part D drug plan to buy or switch to. This is a complex process that involves multiple choices, anticipating your future health care needs and expenses, and a lot of research into the plans available.
It’s an implicit recognition of Medicare’s complexity that so many resources are available to help with this process, from private and government-funded consultants to YouTube videos and detailed web pages on the Medicare website. The following resources and blogs can help answer your questions: …Learn More
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