Q&A: How Medicare, COBRA interact

Dear Liz: You recently wrote about how Medicare coverage interacts with employer coverage. My husband will retire next year at age 65. His company has over 20 employees, so it’s considered a large company plan that won’t require him to sign up for Medicare. Is it better for him to elect family COBRA coverage for 36 months and defer Medicare coverage, since his company healthcare plan will be superior to Medicare? Can he elect Medicare coverage once COBRA terminates? Coverage matters more than costs.

Answer: He shouldn’t put off signing up for Medicare, because COBRA won’t insulate him from penalties.

The previous column mentioned that Medicare Part A, which covers hospital visits, is usually premium-free, but people generally pay premiums for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, and Medicare Part D, which covers prescription drugs.

Failing to sign up when you’re first eligible for Part B and Part D typically means incurring permanent penalties that can be substantial. You can avoid the penalties if you’re covered by a large employer health insurance plan — but that plan must be as a result of current employment, either yours or your spouse’s. Once your husband retires, his employment is no longer current, so he should sign up for Medicare to avoid penalties.

If you or any other dependents need coverage, he may end up paying for additional insurance through COBRA on top of what he pays for Medicare. He can have both COBRA and Medicare for himself if his Medicare benefits become effective on or before the day he elects COBRA coverage. If he starts Medicare after he signs up for COBRA, his COBRA benefits would cease but coverage for you and any dependent children could be extended for up to 36 months. Another option to consider would be to cover you and any dependents using a plan from an Affordable Care Act marketplace. You may want to discuss your options with an insurance agent before deciding.

In fact, getting expert opinions is a must, because Medicare rules and health insurance in general can be so complex. Anyone nearing 65 also would be smart to discuss their individual situations with their company’s human resources department and then confirm the information with Medicare before deciding when and how to sign up.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What to do if your parents need financial help. Also in the news: Why no new debt is the best holiday gift to your family, AmEx cardholders report account shutdowns, and why you should get a health insurance cost estimate even if you’re not buying coverage.

What to Do If Your Parents Need Financial Help
Balancing your needs with theirs.

The Best Holiday Gift to Your Family? No New Debt
The gift that won’t keep on taking.

AmEx Cardholders Report Account Shutdowns
Self-referrals appear to be the culprit.

Get a Health Insurance Cost Estimate Even If You’re Not Buying Coverage
You could be eligible for a subsidy.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: You owe interest on a 0% APR credit card. How did that happen? Also in the news: How to choose the right health plan, how to win big on Black Friday, and how your travel plans affect which Medicare coverage you should choose.

You Owe Interest on a 0% APR Credit Card. How Did That Happen?
Could be several reasons.

How to Choose the Right Health Plan
Happy Open Enrollment season!

Win Big on Black Friday by Buying This — and Not That
Creating a Black Friday strategy.

How your travel plans affect which Medicare coverage you should choose
Yes, you read that correctly.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to choose the right health plan. Also in the news: Your data is out there: how to take action, 7 retirement savings mistakes financial advisors see too often, and what to do if you haven’t filed your taxes in years.

How to Choose the Right Health Plan
Open enrollment season is here.

Your Data Is Out There: Don’t Freak Out, Do Take Action
Taking preventative measures.

7 Retirement Savings Mistakes Financial Advisors See Too Often
How they help their clients recover.

What to Do If You Haven’t Filed Your Taxes in Years
Time to come clean.

How to choose the right health plan

When we’re given a choice about our health care plans, we often choose badly.

In one study, more than 80% of the employees at a Fortune 100 company picked the wrong plans, often choosing low-deductible options that ultimately cost them more. Another study found that inertia — sticking with the same plan, rather than evaluating the options each year and choosing a better one — cost workers an average $2,032 annually.

In my latest for the Associated Press, steps to help you pick a better plan.

Q&A: Here’s a big tax mistake you can easily avoid

Dear Liz: I’m self-employed and my wife wasn’t working last year. In December, we returned to California and found a small home to purchase using $107,000 I took out of my IRA. Since we weren’t quite certain of what our income would be, we received our health insurance in Oregon through an Affordable Care Act exchange.

When we filed our taxes we got hit with a $20,000 bill for the insurance, because we earned too much to qualify for subsidies, and a $10,000 bill for the IRA withdrawal. Our goal was to own our home outright, which we do, but now we have a $30,000 tax bill hanging over us.

Can we work with the IRS somehow on this? We didn’t “earn” the $107,000; we invested it in a home. It wasn’t income, so why should we be punished for using our savings to purchase a home?

Answer: If you mean, “Can I talk the IRS out of following the law?” then the answer is pretty clearly no. The IRA withdrawal was income. It doesn’t matter what you did with it.

Consider that you probably got a tax deduction when you contributed to the IRA, which means you didn’t pay income taxes on that money. The gains have been growing tax deferred, which means you didn’t pay tax on those, either.

Uncle Sam gave you those breaks to encourage you to save for retirement, but he wants to get paid eventually. That’s why IRAs and most other retirement accounts are subject to required minimum distributions and don’t get the step-up in tax basis that other investments typically get when the account owner dies.

(If you did not get a tax deduction on your contributions, by the way, then part of your withdrawal should have been tax-free. If you’d contributed to a Roth IRA, your contributions would not have been deductible but withdrawals in retirement would be tax-free.)

The IRS does offer long-term payment plans that may help. People who owe less than $50,000 can get up to six years to pay their balances off. You would file Form 9465 to request a payment plan. The IRS’ site has details.

Here’s a good rule to follow in the future: If you’re considering taking any money from a retirement account, talk to a tax professional first. People often dramatically underestimate the cost of tapping their 401(k)s and IRAs; a tax pro can set you straight.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news


Today’s top story: 5 empowering tips for women on Equal Pay Day. Also in the news: 5 smart ways to invest your tax refund, 7 ways to trim your taxes in retirement, and how changes to the ACA might affect your insurance premiums.

5 Empowering Tips for Women on Equal Pay Day
It’s time to bridge the gap.

5 Smart Ways to Invest Your Tax Refund
Putting it towards the future.

Taxes in Retirement: 7 Ways to Trim Your Bill
Making your retirement a little less stressful.

How Changes to the ACA Might Affect Your Insurance Premiums
Playing the waiting game.






Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 3 reasons to choose a college based on price. Also in the news: 3 times you can pay taxes with plastic and come out ahead, 7 tax changes investors should watch for when they file, and why you should check your hospital bill against your explanation of benefits.

3 Reasons to Choose a College Based on Price
Avoiding high debt.

3 Times You Can Pay Taxes With Plastic and Come Out Ahead
Building card perks.

7 Tax Changes Investors Should Watch For As They File
Investors face several new changes.

Check Your Hospital Bill Against Your Explanation of Benefits
Billing mistakes are rampant.

Q&A: How to find affordable healthcare insurance

Dear Liz: I am 25 and work two part-time jobs, neither of which offers health insurance. Once I’m 26, I will no longer be able to remain on my parents’ policy. Do I need a full-time job to receive health benefits, or do I have other options?

Answer: You currently have other options, but you may still want to look for a full-time job that offers this important benefit.

Although a Texas judge ruled the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, the law giving people access to health insurance remains in effect while legal challenges play out. You can start your search for coverage at www.healthcare.gov. The open enrollment period for most people has ended, but some states including California have extended the deadline to Jan. 15. In addition, you would qualify for a “special enrollment” period once you turn 26 and lose eligibility for coverage on a parent’s plan.

If the ACA does go away, health insurance may become harder to qualify for and more expensive. Group health insurance through an employer may become your best option.

How to save money on health care

Americans on average spend more on health care than they do on groceries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest Consumer Expenditure Survey. Saving money on medical care is a lot tougher than saving money on food, however. Two big culprits: opaque pricing and ever-changing insurance company rules about what’s covered and what’s not.

For help in cutting costs, I turned to a uniquely qualified individual: Carolyn McClanahan, an emergency room doctor turned certified financial planner. McClanahan, director of financial planning at Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida, frequently speaks at industry conferences, teaching other advisors how to help their clients best navigate the health care system.

In my latest for the Associated Press, the three questions everyone should ask to save money on health care.