Retirees Can’t Afford Hearing, Dental Care

Hearing loss can amplify cognitive decline by isolating retirees and forcing them to divert precious brain power to participate in a conversation. People who lose teeth have trouble eating, sacrificing their health. And poor vision, uncorrected by cataract surgery or the proper magnification in eyeglasses, is dangerous when driving at night.

These problems are facts of aging. But Medicare doesn’t cover their often-expensive solutions such as hearing aids, dental implants, or eyeglasses. A report by the Kaiser Family Foundation identified a gap between need and access is wide.

Among the 16 percent of Americans over 65 who said in a survey that they couldn’t get hearing, dental or vision services, nearly three out of four couldn’t afford them.

Three charts, based on Kaiser’s analysis of the survey data, show the average out-of-pocket spending for hearing and dental care was around $900 for the Medicare beneficiaries who used the services in 2018. The cost of vision care was significantly less, averaging $230.

Retirees usually don’t need all three services in a single year. For example, dental implants cost thousands of dollars, and an individual might get one or two in a lifetime. But when retirees do get the expensive dental care, a new Kaiser report shows the bill can really pack a wallop – and become an obstacle to getting the necessary care. …Learn More

Video: Wisdom from Decades of Living

A Jewish child rides the Kindertransport out of Nazi-controlled Austria to safety in England, eventually coming to the United States. A Japanese-American mother is confined to an internment camp. A child of Mexican farm workers in California goes to bed hungry. A young African-American organizes sit-ins for Civil Rights.

Taken together, the early life stories shared by the individuals in a new PBS feature, “Lives Well Lived,” are a compendium of U.S. history. The trailer that appears above can’t do justice to the full video, which can be viewed free of charge on the PBS website until Sept. 29.

Despite their trials, these individuals have embraced life with a zeal and perseverance that are surely part of the secret to how they have made it into their 80s or 90s. And there is a growing body of scientific evidence that the healthy lifestyle and even the positive attitude these seniors display improve longevity.

“When I wake up in the morning, I expect something good to happen,” one woman said. “Sometimes it’s postponed to the next day or the day after, but inevitably something wonderful happens.” …Learn More

401k Plans Evolve to Boost Workers’ Savings

Many employees in the private sector, when left to their own devices, either save very little in the company retirement savings plan or don’t even sign up for it.

But a growing number of companies have revamped their 401(k)-style plans over the past two decades to strengthen the incentives for employees to save. While progress has been gradual and uneven, the companies are moving in the right direction.

In a new study, researchers have compiled a unique nationally representative data set that tracks the changes employers have made to their 401(k)s and 403(b)s. The findings describe three important areas in which they are making progress:

  • About 41 percent of the largest 4,200 U.S. employers in this study automatically enrolled workers in a savings plan in 2017 – up sharply from 2 percent in 2003. Workers can still opt out but the vast majority remain in the plans.
  • Similar improvements were also evident in the study’s broader sample of employers of all sizes. In 2017, about a third of all companies had auto-enrollment, compared to virtually none in 2003.
  •  Among companies with auto-enrollment, about 44 percent of the large employers and half of the overall sample are automatically increasing their workers’ contributions.
  • Contributions to the plans are generally rising too.

The researchers credited some of the improvements to the Pension Protection Act. The 2006 law explicitly allowed companies to automatically enroll employees in savings plans and also established a minimum standard for the level of employer contributions made by companies that adopt auto-enrollment. …Learn More

State Auto-IRAs are Building Momentum

About half of the nation’s private-sector employees do not have a retirement savings plan at work, and that hasn’t changed in at least 40 years.

Some states are trying to fix this coverage gap in the absence of substantial progress by the federal government in solving the problem.  And the state reforms are gaining momentum.

Auto-IRA mapIn the past year alone, Maine, Virginia, and Colorado have passed bills requiring private employers without a retirement plan to automatically enroll their workers in IRAs, with workers allowed to opt out. New York City, which is more populous than most states, approved its program in May. And other states are either starting to implement programs or looking at their options.

Auto-IRAs are already up and running in California, Illinois, and Oregon, where a total of nearly 360,000 workers have saved more than $270 million so far. The programs are run by a private sector administrator and investment manager.

These mandatory programs are the only practical way to close the coverage gap, because voluntary retirement saving initiatives have never done the trick. Numerous voluntary plans created by the federal government – such as the Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) – have failed to measurably increase coverage.

Large corporations usually offer a 401(k) plan and match some of their workers’ savings. But millions of restaurants, shops, and other small businesses either can’t afford to set up their own 401(k)s or don’t see it as a priority. Without additional saving, half of U.S. workers are at risk of a drop in their standard of living when they retire.

State auto-IRA programs eliminate the administrative burden and expense to employers of a private plan and provide an easy way for workers to save. The money is taken out of their paychecks before they can spend it and is deposited in an account that grows over time. The state programs also permit workers  to withdraw their contributions without a tax penalty for emergencies, like a medical problem or broken-down car, if they need the money they’ve saved. …Learn More

Think of Saver’s Tax Credit as Free Money

Life’s unpleasant surprises – a new set of tires or a big vet bill – can get in the way of saving money for retirement. This is especially true for low-income workers.

But if they are able to save a little here and there, the federal government provides a very big assist through its Saver’s Credit. Unfortunately, low-income workers are also the least likely to be aware the tax credit exists.

Savers credit tableHere’s how the Saver’s Credit works. The IRS returns half of the amount saved over the year – up to certain limits – by a head of household earning less than $29,626 or a couple earning less than $39,501.

So, the head of household with earnings under the income limit who saves $2,000 in a tax-exempt retirement plan like an IRA or an employer 401(k) would get back the IRS’ maximum credit of $1,000. And the couple that saves $4,000 would get back the $2,000 maximum.

Piggy bankGranted, these are very large sums for low-income workers. But if they can manage to save a little bit every week, the Saver’s Credit is effectively free money from the federal government.

Smaller tax credits are available to people with slightly higher incomes. Individuals and couples do not qualify if they earn more than $49,500 and $66,000, respectively.

Unfortunately, only about a third of households earning under $50,000 are aware of the credit, according to a Transamerica Institute survey.

Now that you know, start saving. You’ll get a big chunk of it back. …Learn More

Hard for People on SSDI to Resume Work

Man sanding woodThe federal government runs numerous small-scale experiments across the country to explore ways to help people on Social Security disability ease back into work to reduce the benefits being paid.

In a recent webinar, researchers discussed the extreme challenges of designing programs that are effective, given the inherent disadvantages – from the disabling condition itself and discrimination to having less education – that people with disabilities face in the job market.

After close examination of several programs, the researchers found that the primary goals of most demonstration programs are very difficult to achieve: reducing disability benefits or increasing the earnings of people on disability who have sporadic or part-time work. But they also suggested that the programs would be deemed more successful if policymakers would broaden the goals to include the improved well-being of people with disabilities.

To increase their employment, Kilolo Kijakazi, deputy commissioner of retirement and disability policy at the U.S. Social Security Administration, said it’s critical to first address inequities in the job market.

Research shows that many people on disability express an interest in working but face multiple barriers. Employers aren’t always willing to make the workplace accommodations needed to hire them. People on disability also tend to be older than most workers and may face age discrimination. Others have been discouraged by past work experiences, and finding transportation to and from a job is often a challenge.

Although a minority of all Americans with disabilities are working, the 2020 unemployment rate among people with a disability who are either working or looking for a job was 12.6 percent. However, unemployment among Black Americans with disabilities was 16.3 percent. The rates were also very high for Asian-Americans and Latinos with disabilities –  15.7% and 16.8 percent, respectively.

“We need to develop policies and programs that address these inequities,” Kijakazi said.

Robert Moffitt at Johns Hopkins University analyzed several back-to-work programs, including the use of counselors and financial incentives. He found that the programs are extremely difficult to implement well and that participation is fairly low.

Although they do help some individuals, he concluded, “Most of the efforts to increase employment, earnings and labor force engagement of [disability] beneficiaries have been disappointing.” …Learn More

Helping hands

An Appreciation of Professional Caregivers

My 85-year-old mother had been up a few times during a night in early June and still wasn’t feeling well in the morning. I called her doctor, who sent a prescription to her pharmacy, and went about my day’s work. But when I checked in that afternoon, mom was in a full-blown medical crisis that she and her 92-year-old male companion did not think was bad enough to tell me about.

I asked her companion to call the EMTs, who immediately dispatched mom to an emergency room a few miles from her Orlando retirement community. These events marked the start of my maiden voyage as my mother’s caregiver from 1,300 miles away in Boston. It was a high-stress affair that challenged all my organizational skills and stamina – an experience I am, no doubt, destined to repeat.

I’ve heard about the stresses of caring for an elderly parent but had only a vague sense of what that would be like. Nearly a week was consumed with keeping tabs on mom’s medical care at the hospital and what she needed, tracking down busy nurses and doctors – in a pandemic! – for updates on her condition (pneumonia) and treatment. Finally, upon mom’s hospital release on a Sunday, I wanted to make sure nothing else would go wrong at home.

The clouds started to lift when I hired three professional caregivers – Rachel, Nadine, and Rosa – to keep an eye on my mother for the first 24 hours at home. I developed a great appreciation for their kindness and efficiency and the unique talents each one brought to the job.

The hiring process wasn’t seamless, however, due to the COVID. My mother and her partner are fully vaccinated. But Florida has a much lower vaccination rate – 62 percent of adults have at least one dose, compared with 81 percent in Massachusetts – and I quickly learned that 35-year-old Rachel, the first caregiver assigned to mom, was among the unvaccinated.

I was about to cancel the contract with the company employing the caregivers when they offered to give Rachel a rapid COVID test. That worked for me. Having made my intentions crystal clear, the company texted me Nadine’s and Rosa’s vaccine cards for the later shifts. …Learn More