COVID’s Small Impact on Future Mortality

The most COVID deaths were among Americans over age 60, who accounted for 300,000 of the 500,000 U.S. deaths from the disease in its first year.

A new study by the Center for Retirement Research finds, not surprisingly, that the oldest survivors of the early months of the pandemic were healthier than those who died from the virus. Taking this into account, the researchers estimated what mortality might look like in a “post-COVID” world in an analysis that was based on a big assumption – that COVID’s deaths were confined to a single year.

Factoring in the early impact of the virus, the researchers found that, despite COVID’s tragic toll in the over-60 population, their future mortality would decline only slightly because the number of COVID deaths was low relative to the group’s overall population.

Even a small drop in mortality might seem counterintuitive at a time the media were widely reporting that COVID was causing a dramatic increase in the annual death rate. But future mortality is different.

The researchers decided to test whether mortality would decline over the next decade because the older people who survived the pandemic were less likely to have the medical conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer that made others in their age group vulnerable. COVID’s survivors are a healthier population, they explained, with lower mortality rates than those who entered the pandemic. …Learn More

The Cost of Having a Disability in COVID

In COVID’s early months, millions of workers’ incomes dried up as the unemployment rate skyrocketed. But older Americans were somewhat shielded from the downturn.

That’s because they either are over 62 and on Social Security or receive federal disability benefits every month at higher rates than young adults. And just like everybody else, they got relief checks from Congress to soften the blow from the pandemic.

Yet, despite the reliability of a government check, older Americans with disabilities suffered from “acute financial insecurity,” according to a new study that seeks to understand why.

During the pandemic, people over the age of 50 with disabilities reported having much more difficulty paying for food than people without a disability. They also showed more signs of financial distress, including missing a payment on a credit card, utility, or medical bill, researcher Zachary Morris found.

But the heart of his analysis of household financial data was confirmation of his suspicion that a loss of income was not the primary reason that financial insecurity increased for people with disabilities during the pandemic.

Much of the strain came from higher spending likely resulting from rising costs for disability-related items such as prescription drugs like insulin, assistive technologies, and personal protective equipment to protect themselves during the stay-at-home orders. A 12 percent increase last year in the cost of home health aides was a prime example that hit people with disabilities particularly hard. …Learn More

Happy Thanksgiving!

The staff at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College who put together this blog hope our readers have a safe, joyful and delicious Thanksgiving with family and friends.

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Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC. This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Learn More

Tis the Season to Shop for Medicare Options

Americans are fighting back against soaring food prices by shopping at discount grocers, buying lower-cost store brands, or giving up their favorite gourmet items.

Yet Medicare beneficiaries usually don’t shop around for a less expensive insurance policy or a higher quality one. It’s also advisable for retirees to review their current plans to make sure they still include the right doctors or prescription drugs for treating any new medical conditions. Open enrollment for Medicare Advantage and Part D plans started Oct. 15 and ends Dec. 7.

Over their lifetimes, retirees will spend an average $67,000 out-of-pocket for medical care – and that does not include the monthly premiums. The least healthy retirees will pay twice that much.

Yet only three in 10 people surveyed in 2019 by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they compared their existing Medicare insurance policies with the new policies that came on the market during open enrollment for 2020. Three groups who would probably benefit most had the lowest rates of shopping around: low-income and minority retirees and people over 85.

Given retirees’ reluctance to comparison shop, it should not be a surprise that the vast majority stay put and don’t change their policies. The share of people who do change a plan bounces around from year to year but not by much, Kaiser found. …Learn More

Spouse in Nursing Home Raises Poverty Risk

When nursing home care uses up a widow’s savings, the federal Medicaid program will kick in and cover her bills for care. But it’s more complicated for couples.

If one spouse moves into a nursing home and the bills start piling up, the person who is still living in their home can face serious financial hardship and even poverty.

This is a significant risk facing the one in three married people in their early 70s whose spouse will eventually wind up in a nursing home, researchers at RAND found in a study on the financial impact on couples rather than individuals.

It’s not unusual to pay roughly $90,000 for a year for a semi-private in a nursing home, though many people have relatively short stays. A common misconception about Medicare is that it covers all nursing home bills. It does not. The program pays for just 100 days of care in a skilled nursing facility and only after someone has been in the hospital and needs more time for recovery or rehabilitation.

High-income retirees pay directly for care that doesn’t follow a hospital stay, because in most states Medicaid kicks in only after couples deplete all but about $3,000 in savings to cover the cost of the nursing home. There is one significant protection for couples under Medicaid’s eligibility rules: their home does not count as an asset as long as a spouse continues to live there.

But if an unlucky couple has high out-of-pocket spending due to a long stay in a nursing home, the researchers found that it increases the chances they will run through virtually all of their savings and become impoverished. While poverty is far less likely for higher-income couples, they are not immune. …Learn More

Paid Sick Time Spreading in the COVID Era

The pandemic has done good things for paid sick time.

Today, 77 percent of all employees in the private sector get paid time off for short-term illnesses and preventive medical care. That’s a modest four points higher than in 2019 but at least it’s going in the right direction.

However, coverage remains low at the bottom of the wage scale where workers are much less likely to have any type of employer benefits. Just 55 percent of workers with earnings in the bottom 25 percent of all workers receive paid sick time, according to a 2022 report by the Economic Policy Institute.  Even their coverage has increased – from 47 percent prior to the pandemic – but they’re still trailing far behind everyone else.

The overwhelming majority of public-sector workers and the highest-income employees in the private sector already have paid sick time. Some of the lowest coverage rates are for workers at small private employers like restaurants and local retailers that argue the policies are too costly.

To protect Americans without sick leave from COVID, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act required employers with fewer than 500 workers to pay for it. After the federal mandate expired at the end of 2020, there have been a couple of reasons for the increase among private-sector workers, said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. …Learn More

Traditional Medicare or an Advantage Plan?

Medicare Advantage or traditional Medicare with supplemental insurance: which should you choose?

A compelling reason so many 65-year-olds are flocking to Medicare Advantage insurance policies is that they tend to have significantly lower premiums than enrolling directly in traditional Medicare. Retirees are also inundated with advertisements on television, online and in the mail urging them to sign up for the Advantage plans, which sometimes cover vision and dental care.

But the premium alone is a superficial test for such a consequential decision. Traditional Medicare plans combined with a Medigap or Part D drug plan might, in the end, be less costly. Differences in the quality of care and the out-of-pocket costs can weigh more heavily over the long haul as retirees get older and their health declines.

The federal government spent $321 more per person in 2019 on Medicare benefits in Advantage plans than on each person enrolled directly in traditional Medicare, according to Kaiser. “The growing role of Medicare Advantage and the relatively high spending on this program raise the question of how well private plans serve their enrollees,” Kaiser said.

To shed light on the advantages and disadvantages of each route, Kaiser’s researchers combed through more than five dozen academic studies and packaged them into a report comparing the care provided under Medicare Advantage policies and traditional Medicare.

Kaiser, a healthcare non-profit, found that both choices had some important things in common, including similar levels of patient satisfaction with care, wait times, care coordination, and the ability to find a doctor or specialist.

Medicare Advantage plans are separate insurance policies, and the federal government pays the insurance company for some of the care. Traditional Medicare in this report covers people who pay the federal Medicare premium for Part A and B coverage, and people who enroll in Medicare and also buy a Medigap supplement or Part D drug policy from an insurer.

A decision made at 65 isn’t irreversible. But most retirees tend to stay put once they choose between an Advantage insurance policy and traditional Medicare. It’s also important to remember that migrating from a Medicare Advantage policy to a Medigap supplement is more difficult than going from Medigap to Medicare Advantage.

Here’s a rundown of the most salient differences in cost and care in Kaiser’s summary. But this is a complicated decision, and many of the findings are subtle. So read the full report to understand the nuances. …Learn More