Q&A: Why your Medicare premium might jump unexpectedly and what you can do about it

Dear Liz: I find myself in a very bad tax/Social Security/Medicare loop that I am sure many other seniors are in as well. First, I sold my house and had to pay $50,000 in federal taxes. Now, I have to pay $900 a month for Medicare because I showed a high income for the year I sold the house. The “profit” went to settle my divorce, pay the tax bill and make a down payment on my next house. There’s no extra money.

But as a result of my Medicare premiums going up, I will either have to find a job — which is hard for seniors — or withdraw more from my retirement funds so I can pay my mortgage. Higher withdrawals will mean a higher income, higher taxes and higher Medicare premiums. This cycle will never end!

Answer: What you’re paying is called an income-related monthly adjustment amount or IRMAA. These adjustments, which are based on your income two years previously, can significantly raise premiums for Medicare’s Part B, which covers doctors’ visits, and Part D, which covers prescriptions.

The normal monthly Part B premium in 2022 was $170.10, for example, but IRMAA can boost that premium up to $578.30 for the highest-income recipients. IRMAA added $12.40 to $77.90 to monthly Part D premiums in 2022.

If your premiums are $900 as a single person, you’re likely also paying for a supplemental or Medigap plan that covers deductibles and co-pays. You may also be paying a premium penalty if you started Medicare late.

There is a potential way out, however. Social Security, which is the agency that handles Medicare premiums, will reconsider an adjustment if you’ve experienced certain “life changing events” that lead to an income decrease.

Divorce and annulment are among the life changes the agency will consider. Others include the death of a spouse, marriage, you or a spouse stopping work or reducing hours, the loss of a pension, involuntary loss of income-producing property due to a natural disaster, disease, fraud or other circumstances; or receipt of settlement payment from a current or former employer due to the employer’s closure or bankruptcy.

Social Security should have sent you a notice alerting you to the change in your premiums before it went into effect. That document included instructions about how to request a review. You also can call the agency’s toll free number at (800) 772-1213.

Q&A: Avoiding Medicare late enrollment penalties

Dear Liz: I have taken multiple in-person and online educational classes about Medicare prior to my 65th birthday. What I learned from these classes was that the law demands people register for Medicare Part A when we turn 65 whether we are working or not. Like the woman in your column, I also work full time and do not plan to retire until 70 (at least that is my new target date). At the time of my retirement I will apply for Medicare Part B and purchase supplemental insurance.

Answer: It’s wonderful that you made the effort to educate yourself about Medicare, which can be incredibly complicated. However, you got the wrong lesson about what’s required, since there’s no law that forces people to sign up for any part of Medicare, including Part A, which covers hospitalizations and which is typically premium-free.

The reason most people should sign up at age 65 has to do with penalties. People who delay signing up for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, or Part D, which covers prescriptions, can face permanent, lifetime premium penalties unless they qualify for certain exemptions. One of those exemptions is having qualifying health insurance coverage from a job, either your own or your spouse’s. You can find more details at https://www.medicare.gov/basics/costs/medicare-costs/avoid-penalties.

Q&A: Medicare Part A

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from someone who was delaying signing up for Medicare because he had health insurance through his job. You mentioned that if the employer had 20 or more employees, he didn’t have to sign up until that employment ended. That’s correct, but there’s typically no cost for Medicare Part A so there’s no reason not to sign up.

Answer: That’s an excellent point. Medicare Part A covers hospital visits and typically is premium-free, so signing up at age 65 is a good idea even if you have insurance coverage through work. The other parts of Medicare require monthly premiums and can impose penalties if you don’t apply when you’re first eligible.

Q&A: Switching back to original Medicare

Dear Liz: I’m 75 and I’ve been on an Advantage plan since I started on Medicare at 65. I’m interested in switching to original Medicare with a supplemental policy. I know I will have to enroll in a drug policy also. Will I be subject to any penalties for late enrollment for any of the three policies?

Answer: You won’t be subject to penalties but you will be subject to underwriting for the supplemental policy. That means the private insurance companies that offer these plans can deny you coverage or charge you more for preexisting conditions.

There are a few exceptions. Insurers can’t subject you to underwriting if you’re still within the first 12 months of having a Medicare Advantage plan, for example, or if you move out of the plan’s service area. In addition, four states — Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and New York — require Medigap companies to offer coverage to all Medicare beneficiaries.

Start shopping around and make sure your application for a supplemental policy has been approved before canceling your current plan.

Q&A: How to avoid Medicare late enrollment penalties

Dear Liz: I am 65, still working and have health insurance through my employer. I have not enrolled for Medicare and have been told I do not need to. I plan to once I retire. There is a passage in my Social Security statement that says, “Because you are already 65 or older, you should contact Social Security to enroll in Medicare. You may be subject to a lifetime late enrollment penalty. Special rules may apply if you are covered by certain group health plans through work.” I have tried to research further through the Medicare website but can’t find a clear answer about whether or not I am OK not enrolling at this time.

Answer: If your employer has 20 or more employees, then you’re fine for now. When you stop working for that employer, you’ll have eight months to sign up for Medicare without owing penalties.

If you want your Medicare coverage to start when your job-based coverage ends, though, you should sign up a month before you retire. Similar rules would apply if you were covered by a spouse’s workplace health insurance plan. As long as your spouse is still working for the employer that provides the coverage, you can avoid permanent Medicare penalties.

If your employer has fewer than 20 employees, however, you may be required to sign up for Medicare when you’re first eligible. Check with your employer.

Q&A: Should you keep paying Medicare premiums if you’re moving abroad?

Dear Liz: We are thinking of retiring to Paris. What would be the repercussions if we stop paying Medicare premiums? We’re concerned about the possibility of returning to the U.S. at some future date and the costs of reinstating it. Do we just pay back the past due payments plus a penalty?

Answer: You wouldn’t make up the missed payments, but you would owe a penalty that would permanently increase your premiums for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, and Part D, which covers prescriptions. The penalty for Part B is 10% for every 12 months you were eligible but not enrolled. The penalty for Part D is determined by multiplying 1% of the “national base beneficiary premium” ($33.37 in 2022) by the number of months that you were eligible but didn’t enroll.

Many retirees who plan to eventually move back to the U.S. or make frequent visits opt to keep up their Medicare coverage. Consider discussing your options with a fee-only financial advisor — preferably one who has experience advising would-be expatriates. Another option when you have Medicare questions is to contact your State Health Insurance Assistance Program, which can provide free counseling.

Q&A: Revisiting a Medicare penalty

Dear Liz: As a county employee of 44 years, I was offered the option to contribute to Social Security in the mid-1970s. It was not mandatory and I declined. When I retired in 2004, I did not apply for Medicare as I wrongly assumed that I would not qualify. I have since learned that I can apply for Medicare but that I would have to pay $499 per month as a late enrollment penalty on top of the monthly premium. Do you know any way that I can get a portion of the late penalty waived?

Answer:
As your situation shows, not getting sound advice about Medicare can be expensive. Failing to sign up for Part B coverage, which pays for doctor’s visits, can incur penalties of 10% for each 12 months you were eligible but didn’t enroll. The penalties are typically permanent.

There is an appeals process, but your chances of success may not be great unless you can prove that you delayed enrollment because of bad advice you got from a government representative. Medicare has more information on its site.

Q&A: More about Medicare choices

Dear Liz: I’ve enjoyed your columns about choices between traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage. I have a terminology question: What is the difference between a Medigap policy and a supplemental one? I have traditional Medicare and a supplemental plan, which covers the deductibles and copayments that Medicare doesn’t cover. According to your article, it seems a Medigap policy does the same. Please clarify and keep up the good work.

Answer: Medigap and supplemental policy are two terms for the same product: an insurance policy sold by private insurers to cover the “gaps” in Medicare coverage. If you have traditional Medicare (also known as original Medicare), it’s generally advisable to have a Medigap supplemental policy as well.

You can’t get a Medigap policy, however, if you have Medicare Advantage. Medicare Advantage is also provided by private insurers but is meant to be an all-in-one alternative to traditional Medicare, rather than a supplement to it.

Q&A: Medicare Advantage questions

Dear Liz: You posted a letter against Medicare Advantage plans. The letter suggested that you had to go to their doctors, which is false. You can go out of network with a higher deductible. I will also tell you that most of those same doctors accept your in-network deductible. I do this all the time when I’m at my summer home.

Answer:
As mentioned earlier, Medicare Advantage plans are offered by private insurers as an alternative to traditional Medicare. The plans can differ in what they cover and how.

For example, if your Medicare Advantage plan is a preferred provider organization, you may indeed have some coverage if you use a medical provider outside the plan’s network. If the Medicare Advantage plan is a health maintenance organization, the plan may not cover out-of-network care except in an emergency. HMOs also may require you to get a referral to see a specialist.

Contrast that with traditional Medicare, which allows you to see any medical provider that accepts Medicare (which is most of them). One of the downsides to traditional Medicare is the co-insurance, including deductibles and copayments. However, you can purchase a supplemental, or Medigap, policy from a private insurer to cover those. There are a number of Medigap plans, but what they cover is standardized.

Medicare Advantage plans often pay for things that Medicare does not, such as hearing, eye care and dental. Many people who sign up for Medicare Advantage are, like you, pleased with their coverage. Others are not, though. Read on:

Dear Liz: Regarding the pros and cons of traditional Medicare versus Medicare Advantage options, I want to share a personal horror story about my parents. Both are now deceased, and I went through hell dealing with their Medicare Advantage plans.

These plans often send classy color brochures in the mail to seniors approaching 65, inviting them to a free lunch to hear all about the excellent care that they supposedly will receive when signing up with these health plans — all with no extra monthly premiums! Both my parents fell for the promises offered by these “free” plans.

As you wrote in your response, there are serious and inconvenient limitations to the quality of care and the hospitals and doctors covered in these networks. It was frustrating.

My mother’s primary care doctor always seemed exhausted and never explained anything correctly. He seemed to be annoyed when we asked him to repeat information. My dad’s plan told him it was not contracted with the hospital closest to him and referred him to a hospital much farther away. His primary care physician was rude, disrespectful and uncaring.

As my father’s health advocate, I was always arguing with his insurer. My dad became depressed at the poor quality of care and the lack of support from this company. I think he just gave up. He passed away in 2018 of prostate cancer, which had spread into his lower back. Had he received proper testing when it was supposed to be done, the cancer may have been caught early and treated. It was too far gone to treat by the time it was diagnosed.

If you stay with traditional Medicare, there are supplemental health plans that cost a few hundred dollars a month. I have heard from friends and relatives that the care is better through paid supplemental plans.

Bottom line: You get what you pay for. Probably best to stick with plain old Medicare; you might just live longer.

Answer: Like all private health insurance, Medicare Advantage plans can vary dramatically in quality. You can’t assume that one person’s experience with Medicare Advantage will be the same as another’s.

You can assume, however, that any insurance with lower upfront costs will have higher costs or more restrictions, or both, if you need a lot of care. If you want more freedom to choose your medical providers and you can afford the premiums, traditional Medicare with a supplemental policy may be a better fit.

Q&A: Part D premiums can vary widely

Dear Liz: Regarding Medicare, there is one more point I think you need to tell readers, and that is the high cost of Part D prescription drug coverage for people who choose original Medicare. For example, if you need just a few expensive drugs that are “Tier 3″ or higher, and coupled with the monthly fee, you can easily pay $3,000 a year or more. I am not saying original Medicare is bad. On the contrary, it gives you great freedom of health choice. However, Part D is expensive.

Answer: Part D coverage, like Medigap supplemental plans and the all-in-one Medicare Advantage plans, is offered by private insurers. Part D premiums and coverage can vary tremendously from insurer to insurer. Even with the same insurer, which drugs are covered and how they’re covered can change from year to year. That’s why it’s so important to shop around every year and to be prepared during open enrollment (which starts Oct. 15 and runs to Dec. 7) to switch to a better plan.