Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Financial advice that rarely fits all. Also in the news: Telehealth gets a boost among Medicare recipients in the pandemic, things to keep your holiday packages safe, and when you should transfer your credit card balance to a low-interest card.

Financial Advice That Rarely Fits All
One size doesn’t always work.

Telehealth Gets a Boost Among Medicare Recipients in Pandemic
Medicare dramatically expanded benefits for remote health care in response to COVID-19. Here’s what you need to know.

Do These Things to Keep Your Holiday Packages Safe
You can invest in a security camera or send packages to a secure location, like the post office.

Should You Transfer Your Credit Card Balance to a Low-Interest Card?
Look out for the introductory period.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Grace period over? Refinance these student loans ASAP. Also in the news: smart tactics for Millennials flocking to buy life insurance, how senior insulin users may benefit from Medicare savings model, and how to stay on track with a budget calendar.

Grace Period Over? Refinance These Student Loans ASAP
New graduates shouldn’t wait to see if they can refinance their private student loans.

Smart Tactics for Millennials Flocking to Buy Life Insurance
Millennials applying for life insurance can skip medical exams, simplify the process and pay less than they expect

Insulin Users May Benefit From Medicare Senior Savings Model
Seniors with diabetes may pay less for insulin with this program, which debuts in some Medicare drug plans in 2021.

Stay on Track With a Budget Calendar
One day at a time.

Are Medicare Advantage plans worth the risk?

About 1 in 3 people 65 and older in the U.S. enroll in Medicare Advantage, the private insurance alternative to traditional Medicare. It’s not hard to see why: Medicare Advantage plans often cover stuff that Medicare doesn’t, and most people don’t pay extra for it.

But Medicare Advantage can be more expensive if you get sick because copays and other costs can be higher, says Katy Votava, president of Goodcare.com, a health care consultant for financial advisors and consumers.

Unhappy customers who want to switch back to traditional Medicare may find they no longer qualify for the supplemental policies to help pay their medical bills, or that they would face prohibitively high premiums.

“These are complicated products,” says Votava, author of “Making the Most of Medicare.” “They’re like nothing else, no other insurance that people encounter anywhere until they get to Medicare.”

In my latest for the Associated Press, making sense of the Medicare alphabet soup.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why missing college this fall is a bad idea. Also in the news: Why you should get your finances in top shape now to refi your student loans, choosing the Medigap plan that’s right for you, and how to apply for a $1,000 grant if you’re a freelancer or gig economy worker.

Why Missing College This Fall Is a Bad Idea
You could be wasting time and money.

Get your finances in top shape now to refi your student loans
Get the best deal possible when the grace period ends.

‘Medigap’ insurance covers some Medicare costs. How to choose a plan that’s right for you
Covering some of your Medicare costs.

How to Apply for a $1,000 Grant if You’re a Freelancer or Gig Economy Worker
Apply for an EIDL.

Q&A: IRMAA is not your friend

Dear Liz: My wife and I retired in 2019 and ran into IRMAA — Medicare’s income-related monthly adjustment amount, which increased our monthly premiums. I thought I’d done such a good job budgeting for retirement but missed this. A lot of couples have their best income years at the end of their career and then get blindsided by the cost of Medicare and the adjustment based on their previous income. I will say that the folks at the local Social Security office were very helpful, and they supplied us with forms for an exception based on our new income.

Answer: IRMAA can boost premiums substantially for singles with yearly income above $87,000 and married couples with incomes above $174,000. The increases for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, range from $57.80 to $347 a person per month. The surcharges for Part D, which pays for prescription drugs, start at $12.20 and top out at $76.40 a person per month.

The adjustments are based on your income two years prior (so 2018 income determines 2020 premiums). You can appeal the increase if you’ve experienced a life-changing event. Retirement with a subsequent drop in income can be one such event. So can other work stoppages or reductions, marriage or divorce, the death of a spouse, loss of income-producing property or loss of pension income.

Even without IRMAA, healthcare costs can catch many newly retired people by surprise, especially if they previously had generous employer-subsidized coverage. Medicare doesn’t cover everything; it has deductibles and co-pays in addition to premiums, and excludes most vision, hearing and dental expenses.

How much you pay out of pocket depends on your health, where you live and what supplemental coverage you buy. A study by Vanguard and Mercer Health and Benefits estimated that a typical 65-year-old woman in 2018 could expect to pay $5,200, but her costs could range from $3,000 to $26,200. (The researchers say a 65-year-old man’s costs are typically about 3% lower.)

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.

Q&A: Medicare vs. spouse’s health plan

Dear Liz: I am planning to retire in a few months at 65. My husband, who is five years younger, works for a corporation that provides excellent health insurance. When I sign up for Medicare, will I still be able to stay on my husband’s health insurance? Which insurance will be listed first for coverage?

Answer: The rules are different depending on whether your husband’s insurance is considered a large employer plan or a small employer plan.

If the plan covers 20 or fewer employees, his employer can boot you off the plan or make it secondary to Medicare. If the plan covers more than 20 employees, though, the employer typically can’t treat you differently from younger employees and spouses and must allow you to stay on the plan, which would remain your primary insurance with Medicare as the secondary insurer.

Medicare penalties are another issue to consider. 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. If you don’t sign up for Medicare Part B and Part D when you’re first eligible, you could face permanent penalties that would raise your monthly premiums for life.

These penalties don’t apply if you put off signing up for Part B and Part D because you’re covered by a large employer health insurance plan from current employment, either yours or your spouse’s. Once that employment or coverage ends, though, you’ll need to sign up for Part B and Part D promptly or the penalties kick in.

Notice the use of the words “typically,” “normally” and “generally” in the paragraphs above. Medicare’s rules and exceptions can be tricky to navigate. Talk to the benefits manager at your husband’s company so you know where you stand, and what parts of Medicare to sign up for as you turn 65.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Understanding the differences between Medicare and Medicaid. Also in the news: How hungry college students can get help, Robinhood takes another shot at cash management accounts, and a new scam that asks for your bank PIN on the phone.

Hunger on Campus: How College Students Can Get Help

What Is the Difference Between Medicare and Medicaid?
Understanding the government-run health care plans.

Robinhood Takes Another Shot at Cash Management Accounts
This time with FDIC backup.

Beware a New Scam That Asks for Your Bank PIN on the Phone
This is a particularly savvy scam.

Q&A: Medicare has a prerequisite

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you mentioned that Medicare Part A is free, but that requires 40 quarters (or 10 years) of U.S. employment to qualify. There are, unfortunately, many of us with offshore employment who have found this out too late. Even if one has worked in a country with a tax treaty with the U.S. that allows you to transfer pension credits to Social Security, that will not allow you to qualify for Medicare. I think it would have been very helpful if I had known this about 10 years ago!

Answer: Medicare is typically premium-free, because the vast majority of people who get Medicare Part A either worked long enough to accrue the necessary quarters or have a spouse or ex-spouse who did. (Similar to Social Security, the marriage must have lasted at least 10 years for divorced spouses to have access to Medicare based on an ex-spouse’s record.)

But of course there are exceptions, and you’re one of them. People who don’t accrue the necessary quarters typically can pay premiums to get Part A coverage if they are age 65 or older and a citizen or permanent resident of the United States. The standard monthly premium for Part A is $437 for people who paid Medicare taxes for less than 30 quarters and $240 for those with 30 to 39 quarters.

Q&A: Avoiding Medicare sign-up penalties

Dear Liz: Someone recently asked you if signing up for Medicare is mandatory. Your answer implied no, one does not have to sign up at 65. However, it is my understanding that if a person does not enroll when first eligible, they will be hit with large penalties on their Medicare premiums if they sign up later. Am I missing something?

Answer: Not at all. That answer was too short and should have mentioned the potentially large, permanent penalties most people face if they fail to sign up for Medicare Part B and Part D on time.

To review: Medicare is the government-run healthcare system for people 65 and older. Part A, which covers hospital care, is free. Medicare Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, and Part D, which covers prescriptions, typically require people to pay premiums. Many people also buy Medigap policies to cover what Medicare doesn’t, or opt for Medicare Part C. Part C, also known as Medicare Advantage, is an all-in-one option that includes everything covered by Part A and Part B and may include other benefits.

There’s a seven-month initial enrollment period that includes the month you turn 65 as well as the three months before and three months after.

People who don’t sign up when they’re first eligible for Part B usually face a penalty that increases their monthly cost by 10% of the standard premium for each full 12-month period they delay. For Part D, the penalty is 1% of the “national base beneficiary premium” ($33.19 in 2019) times the number of full months the person was uncovered.

People who fail to enroll on time also could be stuck without insurance for several months because they may have to wait until the general enrollment period (Jan. 1 to March 31) to enroll.

People typically can avoid these penalties if they have qualifying healthcare coverage through a union or an employer (their own or a spouse’s). When that coverage ends, though, they must sign up within eight months or face the penalties. Also, they might not avoid the penalties if their employer-provided coverage becomes secondary to Medicare at 65, which can happen if the company employs fewer than 20 workers. Anyone counting on union or employer coverage to avoid penalties should check with the company’s human resources department and with Medicare to make sure they’re covered.

The original letter writer had no income to pay Medicare premiums, so the answer also should have included the information that Medicaid — the government healthcare program for the poor — might help pay the premiums. People in this situation should contact the Medicaid office in their state. (Medicaid is known as Medi-Cal in California.)