Like most issues about which I post, the topic of “Finding A Good Death” arose from a personal connection. In this case when a neighbor consulted me about his sister who was being referred to hospice care after battling cancer. While not an expert in hospice care, I have long studied seniors housing and care and, for a time, I followed the publicly traded hospice companies as a stock analyst. I also have some personal experience with hospice care. My older brother (only four years my senior) utilized hospice care before his death in late 2014 from a degenerative neurological condition. To supplement my own knowledge for this blog post, I interviewed a friend and neighbor who is a long-time bereavement counselor volunteer at a large not-for-profit hospice in Baltimore and researched the topic on line.
John McCain’s death, which appeared to come quickly surrounded by friends and family after the Senator elected hospice care, also makes the subject of Finding A Good Death very relevant.
Even though we all die eventually, talking about death and planning for death, beyond making funeral arrangements, are taboo subjects for most Americans. We are culturally geared to want to live as long as possible and most physicians and patients have a strong bias toward utilizing the most expensive, invasive and technologically advanced medical procedures to prolong life, viewing death as failure rather than an inevitable part of the life cycle.
According to data from the Social Security Administration:
- A man age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3.
- A woman age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 86.7.
About one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90, one out of 10 will live past age 95; and longevity estimates for 65 year olds continue to rise. Also, these statistics are averages for the entire population, so healthy non-smokers and those with better health plans and medical care should expect to live longer. Once you reach 65, I would argue you already have a very good chance of living a long life and you and your family should be more concerned with the quality rather than quantity of the remaining life you lead, and with the quality of your death, the focus of this post.
A good death is generally understood to be one that comes quickly and peacefully and with minimal pain and suffering, ideally at home and with an opportunity for loved ones to say their goodbyes.
English physician Dame Cicely Saunders first applied the term “hospice” to specialized care for dying patients in the UK in 1948. Hospice care was introduced to the U.S, in the mid-60s and did not become a Medicare eligible benefit until 1982. History of hospice care
As defined by Medicare, hospice is a program of care and support for people who are terminally ill (with a life expectancy of 6 months or less if the illness runs its normal course) and their families. Hospice helps people who are terminally ill live comfortably.
- The focus is on comfort (palliative care), not on curing an illness.
- A specially trained team of professionals and caregivers provide care for the “whole person,” including physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs.
- Services typically include physical care, counseling, medications for relief of pain and suffering, medical equipment, and supplies for the terminal illness and related conditions. Things like diapers are not covered by Medicare although catheters are. Patients and their families should not expect 24/7 physical care from hospice unless the patient is receiving inpatient care. Home health aides can be provided for bathing, etc. but cannot provide total care.
- Care is generally given in the home.
- Family caregivers can get support.
In order to qualify for Medicare’s hospice benefit, you must participate in Medicare Part A and
- Your hospice doctor and your regular doctor (if you have one) certify that you’re terminally ill (you’re expected to live 6 months or less).
- You accept palliative care (for comfort) instead of care to cure your illness.
- You sign a statement choosing hospice care instead of other Medicare-covered treatments for your terminal illness and related conditions.
Medicare will cover the cost of a one-time hospice consultation even if you decide not to elect hospice care. Once you elect hospice care, the first step in the process is development of an individualized care plan. Original Medicare will cover everything you need related to your terminal illness, but the care you get must be from a Medicare-approved hospice provider.
Hospice care is usually given in your home, but it also may be covered in a senior housing community, a nursing home or a specialized hospice inpatient facility. Depending on your terminal illness and related conditions, the plan of care your hospice team creates can include any or all of these services:
- Doctor services
- Nursing care
- Medical equipment (like wheelchairs or walkers)
- Medical supplies (like bandages and catheters)
- Prescription drugs
- Hospice aide and limited homemaker services. At Gilchrist, a large not-for-profit Baltimore area hospice, a volunteer may do light housekeeping but that is all
- Physical and occupational therapy
- Speech-language pathology services
- Social worker services
- Dietary counseling
- Grief and loss counseling for you and your family
- Short-term inpatient care (for pain and symptom management)
- Short-term respite care
- Any other Medicare-covered services needed to manage your terminal illness and related conditions, as recommended by your hospice team.
Note that the above list does not include the cost of room and board in a seniors housing or skilled nursing facility, so the patient or their family may have to cover this cost if routine hospice care cannot be provided at home.
If your usual caregiver (a family member or other caregiver) needs rest, a hospice patient can get inpatient respite care in a Medicare-approved facility (such as a hospice inpatient facility, hospital, or nursing home). Your hospice provider will arrange this for you. You can stay up to 5 days each time you get respite care. You can get respite care more than once, but only on an occasional basis.
Medicare pays the hospice provider for your hospice care. There’s no deductible. You’ll pay:
- Your monthly Medicare Part A (Hospital Insurance) and Medicare Part B (Medical Insurance) premiums.
- A copayment of up to $5 per prescription for outpatient prescription drugs for pain and symptom management.
- 5% of the Medicare-approved amount for inpatient respite care if used.
Medicare won’t cover any of these once your hospice benefit starts:
- Treatment intended to cure your terminal illness and/or related conditions. Talk with your doctor if you’re thinking about getting treatment to cure your illness. You always have the right to stop hospice care at any time.
- Prescription drugs (except for symptom control or pain relief).
- Care from any provider that wasn’t set up by the hospice medical team. You must get hospice care from the hospice provider you chose. All care that you get for your terminal illness and related conditions must be given by or arranged by the hospice team. You can’t get the same type of hospice care from a different hospice, unless you change your hospice provider. However, you can still see your regular doctor or nurse practitioner if you’ve chosen him or her to be the attending medical professional who helps supervise your hospice care.
- Room and board. Medicare doesn’t cover room and board. However, if the hospice team determines that you need short-term inpatient or respite care services that they arrange, Medicare will cover your stay in the facility. You may have to pay a small copayment for the respite stay.
- Care you get as a hospital outpatient (such as in an emergency room), care you get as a hospital inpatient, or ambulance transportation, unless it’s either arranged by your hospice team or is unrelated to your terminal illness and related condition.
The Medicare hospice benefit is paid by original fee-for-service Medicare. To understand how the hospice benefit relates to Medicare Advantage plan, Part B or D coverage speak with Medicare or your hospice provider and you might consult the publication Medicare Hospice Benefits – Medicare Hospice Benefits
A Popular Benefit
Hospice care enjoys wide support from patients and patient advocates who are supportive of patients dying with dignity and having control over the final chapter of their lives. It is supported by policy makers who believe hospice can save Medicare funds by having terminally ill patients avoid expensive procedures at the end of life that often provide little lasting benefit. Mean medical spending during the last 12 months of life is reaching $80,000 in the U.S., with 44.2% spending for hospital care (57.6% is hospital spending during the final three months of life). To the extent hospice care can reduce expensive end of life hospital care it has the potential to reduce growth in Medicare spending. Hospice Impact On Medical Spending
Hospice care is also viewed favorably by investors and for-profit healthcare companies who see it offering stable reimbursement, attractive margins and very attractive growth prospects as Baby Boomers age. Because hospice reimbursement is designed to adequately fund small not-for-profit hospice providers, not-for-profit and for-profit operators with scale can generate an excess revenue/profits from spreading their overhead costs over a large number of patients, thereby generating reasonable margins from hospice reimbursement.
Electing Hospice Care
The key issue for patients and their families in electing hospice care is that doing so requires you to forgo additional curative treatment for the condition that is expected to lead to your death in order to receive funding for palliative care designed to give you a dignified death with minimal pain and suffering. As noted above, In order to qualify for hospice care a physician, typically your primary care doctor or a hospice doctor, certifies that you are expected to live no more than six months if your disease follows its typical progression. With this physician’s certification and your election to shift from curative to hospice/palliative care you will qualify for Medicare hospice benefits or hospice benefits from a private insurer. If you live more than six months in hospice care, the hospice benefit can be extended but Medicare manages this by penalizing operators that have average length of stays in hospice care.
Selecting A Hospice Provider
According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) Medicare paid about 4,200 different hospice providers for services in 2015. About 60% of these hospice providers were profit-making companies and 40% are not-for-profit (Long-Term Care Providers and Services Users in the United States: Data From the National Study of Long-Term Care Providers, 2013–2014 Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control, Center for Health Statistics, February 2016 – CDC Report On Hospice Services
Hospice providers served approximately 1.3 million patients in 2013 with an average length of stay of 23 days – indicating an average daily census of about 14 patients per hospice.
The statistics above suggest two criteria for selecting a hospice provider 1) for-profit vs. not-for-profit and size. Many hospice providers are small not- for-profit operations. For-profit companies tend to be larger in size, as are some well established not-for-profit organizations, such as Gilchrist Hospice in Baltimore. Smaller operations may offer more personalized care options but larger operations may have their own specially designed dedicated inpatient hospice units and greater resources to Invest in family grief counseling, for example.
Your physician or a social worker/discharge planner at a hospital should be able to recommend or refer you to one or more hospice providers. A simple online search on “finding a hospice provider” results in links to larger for-profit and not-for-profit providers in your area (Heartland, Amedysis and Gilchrist in Baltimore) and links to referral services, such as A Place for Mom, an Internet focused senior housing and care referral company, and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO). Keep in mind that referral services will only refer you to organizations that are members of that organization or agree to pay a referral fee.
The Medicare.gov/hospice compare website provides ratings for hospice providers with percentage scores for a number of objective and subjective measures including results from user surveys. The site allows you to search for specific providers and provides near particular zip codes. See Medicare Hospice Compare. Some of this data is likely self-reported but still appears useful for comparing providers.
Before committing to a particular hospice provider a prospective patient and their family should ideally meet with the provider to assess the staff who will oversee and deliver care to your loved one, share information about your family’s situation and discuss options for delivering hospice care in a way that best meets your families needs. Care will most likely be delivered at home with family members engaged in the hospice care delivery process. It can also be provided in a seniors housing or skilled nursing facility but this may require the family to pay for the coast of board. If required, typically right at the end of life when 24/7 oversight is needed, the location of care may be shifted to an inpatient hospice care facility and you should understand when and how such a facility might be used. You may wish to check on the location and quality of the inpatient option.
I welcome comments and questions on this blog and hope it aids you finding a good death for you and your loved ones.
Financial Planning For Retirement
As with most articles on my blog, this one started with a conversation with a friend. The friend recently turned 60 and is starting to seriously think about retiring from a professional position. He is thinking about a range of options: fully retiring at age 62, shifting to part-time with his firm and delaying retirement until 65 or 66, or continuing to work full-time until 65 or 66. From a lifestyle perspective, my friend would like to retire sooner, rather than later, but wants to feel confident about having enough financial resources for he and his wife to live comfortably throughout their retirement.
It may seem odd to start a discussion of financial planning for retirement with health insurance but Presidential executive actions to not enforce the requirement for mandatory insurance coverage and leave uncertain the fate of some insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act (ACA/ObamaCare) have already disrupted the individual insurance market. Republican proposals to repeal and replace ObamaCare are creating further uncertainty in the insurance market for individuals and, if enacted, are expected to significantly increase the cost of coverage for older, pre-Medicare age, individuals. One CNN report on the Senate bill as of June 27, 2017 shows the cost of ACA Silver Plan coverage increasing from $1,800 to $8,300 because the proposed Republican legislation allows insurers to adjust rates by age and reduces insurance coverage. Until things are settled in Washington, it will be very difficult for any individual contemplating retirement before age 65 (when Medicare kicks in) to determine if individual health care insurance will be available and at what cost.
The best advice for now for someone considering retirement is to work full or part time until age 65 in order to retain employer-based health insurance coverage or confirm that you can purchase coverage through your employer using COBRA benefits and retire up to 18 months before turning age 65. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) gives workers and their families who lose their health benefits the right to continue group health benefits provided by their group health plan for limited periods of time under certain circumstances such as voluntary or involuntary job loss, with the individual paying the full cost of insurance.
When considering how much savings/investments you will need for retirement there are two issues to consider.
- Will your savings/investments generate enough income to allow you to live comfortably and
- Will the income from your savings/investment last long enough if you have a very long life?
Generating Enough Income
Popular guidelines for retirement income suggest that you should have sufficient income to replace about 70% to 85% of your pre-retirement annual after tax income to live comfortably in retirement but some more recent thinking suggests your income needs will not decrease that much in retirement as travel and entertainment, recreation expenses will offset reduced income use for business clothing, commuting costs, etc. (See Kiplinger Article).
Rather than focusing on your pre-retirement income, I believe most of those contemplating retirement prefer to focus on pre-retirement expenses to determine if they will be able to afford the lifestyle to which they are accustomed when they retire. If you plan a major lifestyle change in conjunction with your retirement, like moving to a different community or buying a vacation home, you will need to adjust your expenses, and potentially your taxes, to account for these major lifestyle changes. Looking at actual spending, perhaps over a couple of years, with adjustments for any major lifestyle changes, should provide a solid basis for estimating your expenses in retirement.
The most widely used tool for determining the income that your savings/investments will generate is the 4% rule. As explained in a CNN Money article (CNN Money Article), “The basic mechanics of the 4% rule are pretty simple. You start with an initial withdrawal of 4% of savings and then increase the dollar amount of that first withdrawal by inflation each year to maintain purchasing power.
So, for example, if you have a nest egg of $500,000 and inflation is running at 2% a year, you would withdraw $20,000 the first year of retirement, $20,400 the second year, $20,800 the third and so on. This regimen results from research done in the early 1990s by now retired financial planner William Bengen. After testing different withdrawal rates using historical rates of return for stocks and bonds, Bengen concluded that 4% was the highest withdrawal rate you could use if you want your savings to last 30 or more years.
Some experts have suggested, however, that a 4% withdrawal rate might be too ambitious given today’s low bond yields and lower projected returns for stocks. For example, Wade Pfau, a professor of retirement income at The American College, says that retirees should probably limit themselves to an initial withdrawal rate of 3% or so if they want a high level of assurance (although not a guarantee) that their savings will support them for at least 30 years. For more on how much lifetime income one can expect to get through inflation-adjusted withdrawals, income annuities and other methods of creating income based on current market conditions, check out Pfau’s Retirement Income Dashboard (Pfau’s Retirement Dashboard).”
Many financial firms also offer retirement planning services, some of which use a range of alternative models to estimate retirement income needs. One I have used personally in the past is from TRowePrice at TRowePrice Retirement Planner.
I continue to find the 4% rule works well provided you maintain a portfolio that includes stocks as well as presently low yielding bonds and have adequate cash reserves to stay invested through market downturns. But one common mistake many pre-retirees make is failing to adjust pre-tax retirement income when comparing it to post-tax retirement expenses. While some retirement income is tax sheltered and some state’s do not tax certain retirement income, be sure to remember that most of your retirement income will be subject to Federal, state and local income tax, even Social Security, and typically taxes are a big enough expense that it will be worth consulting a financial planner or your tax accountant to make sure you get your post-retirement tax calculation right.
Assuring Enough Income For A Long Retirement
A 65-year-old woman has a 68% chance of living to 80 and a 28% chance of living to 90. And a 65-year-old man has a 58% chance of living to 80 and a 17% chance of living to 90.2 (BLS Spending Patterns Of Older Americans). And these are averages for the entire population. A physically fit, more affluent senior who enjoys better medical care and diet than average and is less likely than average to smoke can expect to live longer than the above statistics suggest. As a result, a healthy, affluent baby boomers retiring today should assume 30 – 40 years of life in retirement – living to age 95 or 105 if retiring at age 65.
Assuming you are not spending beyond your means and have sufficient savings under the 4% rule to pay for your post-retirement expenses, there are two primary risk areas that might cause a retiree to outlive their savings:
- A large unexpected expense, most likely the cost of institutional care for yourself or your spouse for a prolonged period, or
- A significant market downturn from which your savings are unable to recover.
Long-term care insurance can protect you against much of the risk of prolonged institutional care but the ideal time to purchase such a policy was when you were in your 50s. It may be cost prohibitive to purchase such a policy at or near retirement age. My wife and I have policies through Lincoln National Life Insurance Company that we purchased when I was 53 and my wife 52. These used a lump-sum up-front payment to purchase as annuity that pays the premiums for a long-term care insurance policy while also offering a death benefit if the LTC insurance is not used. The mechanics of this are complicated but I like the idea that the payment amount was locked in at the beginning. If you do not have long term care insurance, you may want to build an additional cushion into your retirement savings to “self-insure” against this risk. Setting aside $150,000 to $200,000 when you retire that will grow with inflation, which is enough to cover up to 24 months in an assisted living facility, should provide reasonable protection against you or a spouse requiring institutional care in the future (See The Cost of Care and other posts on this blog for more information on the cost of care, what Medicare, Medicaid and the VA will pay for and the cost of institutional vs. at-home care).
My preferred method for guarding against the adverse impact of a market downturn is to have a larger than recommended cash component to my savings/investments that will allow me to draw cash in lieu of stock principal for more that a year in the case of a significant market downturn and to use Social Security in lieu of a commercial annuity product to assure long-term income. Many financial planning websites will recommend an annuity to assure continuity of income into very old age. While an annuity purchased from a financially sound and reputable company can assure long-term retirement income, the combination of high up-front fees and current low interest rates make commercial annuities less attractive to me, although I am using one in conjunction with my LTC insurance policy.
For a senior with a sufficient savings / investment portfolio to be able to afford retirement, I believe Social Security offers the most attractive option to create the type of guaranteed income that an annuity offers. Social Security pays an inflation-adjusted retirement benefit for as long as you live. A Social Security benefit for someone who contributed the maximum to the system retiring in 2017 at age 66 (Full Retirement Age) is $2,687 per month but will rise to $3,538 per month if you defer collecting Social Security benefits until age 70. And this higher benefit will continue to grow with inflation over time. If you have sufficient savings to be able to defer collecting Social Security Benefits until age 70, I believe Social Security offers the most cost-effective way to create a guaranteed annuity-like investment stream for your very old age.
A CNN Money asset allocation model suggest a mix of 65% bonds, 20% large cap stocks, 5% small cap stocks and 10% foreign stocks for someone 3 -5 years from retirement with a medium risk tolerance and some flexibility about when income is received CNN Money Asset Allocation Wizard. This is consistent with the financial maxim that the percentage of bonds in your portfolio should equal your age.
However, T Rowe Price’s asset allocation model recommends 50% – 65% stock, 25% – 35% bonds and 5% – 15% short term liquid assets for someone about to retire at age 65. Within the stock portion of the portfolio, TRowe recommends 15% – 19% international/global stocks, 7% – 10% U.S. mid/small cap stocks and 28% to 36% U.S. large cap stocks. Within the bond portfolio, TRowe recommends 5% – 7% international bonds, 2% to 4% high yield bonds and 18% to 24% investment grade bonds TRowePrice Asset Allocation Tool.
I believe thinking about and consciously deciding on an asset allocation for your retirement savings/investment portfolio is one of the most important things an investor should do with their portfolio on an annual basis. Many financial publications and mutual fund companies offer asset allocation models and it may be helpful to consider several and understand what is driving them to help you make a good asset allocation decision for your own portfolio.
My own allocation is a bit closer to the TRowePrice model with 51% equities including a small amount of alternative investments, 32% bonds and 17% short-term cash-equivalent investments. My bond allocation includes a significant amount of tax-exempt municipal bonds and, in my mind, the higher allocation to cash offsets the potential market risk of a larger allocation to equities while allowing me to benefit from dividend yields that are in many cases higher than bond yields and from potential stock price appreciation over time. My stock portfolio includes a healthy dose of individual income producing stocks, exposure to Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) through an index fund and some individual stocks and a managed bond portfolio in which I own individual bonds rather than bond funds. I see a real advantage to owning individual bonds over a bond fund because, absent a default, you can hold individual bonds to maturity and protect your principal while the value of a bond fund can fluctuate with market conditions and the actions of other fund investors.
As my bio under “The Blogger” heading above indicates, I worked for 15 years as a stock analyst with Legg Mason and Stifel Nicolaus and was recognized seven times as a Wall Street Journal All-Star analyst. While I have the skills to manage my own investments I work with a full service investment advisor at Stifel, Nicolaus & Company to manage my portfolio and in recent months have shifted from a commission based to fee based compensation structure as Stifel, like many other firms, has implemented the fiduciary rule.
The focus of many investors today is on minimizing investment fees and purchasing low cost index funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs) over using full service advisors and owning actively managed funds or individual stocks. Understanding and minimizing the fees on your investment portfolio is important and there is a lot of investment analysis that passive investments have outperformed most active managers and individual stock pickers. However, I continue to see value in a full service advisor and a degree of active management, particularly if you have a larger amount of investments.
The key advantages I see to a full service advisor/active management include:
- Keeping all or almost all your investments in a single place. This makes it much easier to understand and monitor your asset allocation and will be extremely helpful to your spouse and other surviving relatives if you die or are incapacitated. Some low-cost brokers and funds companies offer a broad enough array of investment options and can provide some advisory services over the phone or in person in the event of a death or impairment but not the same personalized attention as an experienced broker or fee advisor in my view.
- Index funds may do less well in a more volatile market. We are approaching 10 years of unprecedented low interest rates and market stimulus from central banks throughout the world. In this low-volatility, interest/stimulus driven, broad-based post-downturn stock market rally passive investments have outperformed. But with index funds and the entire market more highly valued and influenced by a relatively small number of mega-market-cap stocks, like Apple and Amazon, will index funds continue to outperform when and if the market and investors are tested by a significant correction and increased volatility? I can’t predict the future, but believe there is a case to be made that the underlying assumptions that have allowed passive investments to outperform may change and again create an opportunity for value-based investing and active management.
- You may need an active manager to buy individual bonds. As noted above, because owning individual bonds provides greater principal protection than a bond fund, I prefer to own individual bonds. The only practical way to do this may be to work with an active bond manager because buying bonds as individual, particularly tax-exempt issues, can be difficult. In addition, I want to hold individual bonds through a single account with my other investments for administrative convenience and to keep down overall fees.
- A good advisor can save you from yourself. Much has been written in recent years on the psychology of investing. One of the most difficult things for even experienced investors to do is to keep one’s nerve when the market is selling off and potentially even buy on dips. An experienced and trusted advisor can help you keep your nerve in a market downturn and help protect you against following the herd. A good advisor can also protect you against being lazy in a good market by periodically adjusting your asset allocation and culling your portfolio in a tax-efficient manner.
I hope these ideas for evaluating and managing your financial resources for retirement are helpful and will be happy to respond to questions and comments.
I formerly worked at Legg Mason Wood Walker, Inc. and at Stifel Nicolaus & Company, Inc. and previously had some of my investment portfolio with T Rowe Price Investment Services, Inc. I do not currently receive and do not expect to receive in the future remuneration from any of these companies.
The Government Will Not Pay For Your Long Term Care
Too many middle and upper income consumers still believe that Medicare, Medicaid or some other government program will pay for their long term care or the long term care of other elderly family members.
Medicare, the Federal healthcare program for those age 65 and over, pays for hospital care (Part A), physician care (Part B) and prescription drugs (Part D) and is often combined with private Medicare supplemental insurance to help cover copays. Some consumers opt for a Medicare Advantage (MA) /managed care plan (Part C) in lieu of Fee for Service Medicare that combines A, B and D benefits and may add other benefits in exchange for a restricted network of providers. Medicare will cover home health care or care in a skilled nursing or other post-acute care facility but only after a three-day inpatient hospital visit (observation status doesn’t count). While some MA plans may waive the mandatory 3-day hospital visit and provide home health or skilled nursing care to avoid a hospital stay, Medicare only pays for home health or skilled nursing care on a short-term basis to avoid or recover from an inpatient hospital visit. The basic Medicare Fee For Service benefit for skilled nursing care is for a maximum of 100 days in a given year only after a 3-day inpatient hospital stay, with only 20 days fully funded and the remainder with a 20% co-pay and only as long as the patient is progressing toward recovery. Long term custodial care for a senior who needs assistance with the activities of daily living, at home or in a facility, is not covered by Medicare.
Under the Medicare hospice benefit, Medicare will provide comprehensive palliative care but only for those (1) whose hospice doctor and regular doctor (if you have one) certify that you’re terminally ill (with a life expectancy of 6 months or less) (2) accept palliative care (for comfort) instead of care to cure their illness and (3) who sign a statement choosing hospice care instead of other Medicare-covered treatments for your terminal illness and related conditions. Hospice care is provided under the Medicare Fee for Service Part A even if you are a member of a MA plan. The Medicare hospice benefit offer comprehensive in-home or in-institution care for those expected to live six months or less. It is an extremely valuable, and still somewhat underused, benefit but it does not provide long term custodial care.
Medicaid, the joint Federal / State program that pays for medical care for the poor will pay for long term care in a skilled nursing facility or in a home and community based setting, which in some states includes assisted living facilities. However, there are strict income and asset tests for Medicaid, which in Maryland are an individual income of approximately $12,000 or less ($16,000 or less for a couple) and assets of no more than $4,000, $6,000 for a couple. A spouse is generally allowed to exclude a home from the asset test and his/her retirement savings but all joint savings and investments would have to be spent down to at least $6,000 before Medicaid benefits can be used and states have become increasingly good about looking back at least three years to see that assets have not been distributed to other family members to meet the asset test. These tests effectively exclude middle and upper income individuals and families from using Medicaid for long term care without first exhausting the large majority of their savings. Medicaid may also limit which facilities and programs you can use since not all assisted living facilities or home health agencies accept Medicaid patients.
With this post, I hope to kick of a series of posts on the issue of Paying for Care that will provide information on the cost of care and strategies for funding it through savings or long term care insurance.
The Difficult, Delicate Untangling of Our Parents’ Financial Lives
There is an excellent article in today’s Wall Street Journal, Monday, March 28, 2016 on the difficulties of sorting out your parents’ financial affairs after they become incapacitated. It includes a number of recommendations on steps you should take with your family while your parents are still healthy to share financial information and avoid the difficulties the author experienced.
Our Experience with Social Security & Medicare Better Than The Private Sector Insurers
As my bio indicates, I spent more than 25 years working in the private sector, primarily in equity research and investment banking for publicly traded securities firms. I, like many with private sector careers and nearly everyone even slightly right of center politically, take as an article of faith that the private sector is more efficient than the government at doing just about anything. However, when it comes to Social Security and Medicare (technically the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services or CMS) my experience over the past year indicates these agencies far exceed private sector insurers in quality of service.
In a single week in January 2016, I applied for Social Security, my wife applied for Medicare and my wife interacted over a billing issue with CareFirst, the Maryland Blue Cross / Blue Shield company. These interactions highlighted for me the contrasts between dealing with these two Federal government agencies and dealing with a private sector health insurer. I found the difference in quality in the government’s favor to be so dramatic that I thought it warranted a comment on my blog.
The quality differences with Social Security, Medicare and private insurers start online. The ssa.gov and medicare.gov websites are well designed and easy to negotiate and the online process to apply for Social Security and Medicare are clear, easy to understand and complete. Follow up correspondence from the agencies can be couched in bureaucratic language but is timely, understandable and alerts you and your spouse to possible benefits, like Social Security if one of you signs up for Medicare, help paying for drugs or the availability of spousal benefits.
After I recently filed online for Social Security benefits the agency had some questions. I was contacted via email by an agency employee within 48 hours of filing my application for benefits and asked to set up a time to talk. I received a call back from a claims specialist within the time slot to which we had agreed. She was very pleasant and enthusiastic, was able to resolve the questions she had and indicated she would move my application along with formal notification likely coming closer to the month in which my 66th birthday would occur. She clearly disclosed that the detailed guidelines for staff of Social Security changes included in the recently passed budget bill had not yet been prepared but agreed that May 1 was the deadline, which I had met, for various rules changes. In short, both my online and telephone interaction with a Social Security claims specialist were easy and pleasant and I believe they will prove effective.
My wife’s experience with Medicare and CareFirst involved only online experiences. With Medicare she was able to quickly and easily complete her Medicare application and has already received her notice of eligibility with coverage beginning in the month she will turn 65. She has yet to select Part B and Part D providers, which will be private insurers operating within Medicare requirements. Contrast this with her almost simultaneous online interaction with CareFirst, which has provided one or both of us with individual health insurance coverage for the last five years or so.
In January, our credit charge used to automatically pay my wife’s CareFirst monthly premium had some information change, so the automatic payment of her CareFirst premium had not gone through. This was communicated to her with conflicting emails, one auto-generated indicating the payment had been processed and another saying it had been rejected and she risk losing coverage if payment was not received. This led us to the CareFirst website, where we spent 10 – 15 minutes trying to find the right area to update the payment information and then another frustrating 15 minutes plus because the system would not allow us to update the information on the credit card. We finally realized we had to first delete the exist card on file for automatic payments and then enter the same card with updated information. But nowhere was this explained in instructions or in the repeated message that the system was unable to update the card on file.
We have previously had equally or more frustrating experiences with CareFirst online, over the phone and even going to an office and dealing with a person face to face when we initially tried to sign up for individual policies (pre Affordable Care Act Exchanges) and when I shifted from our joint policy to Medicare and we tried to keep coverage in place for my wife. The letter we received from CareFirst indicating we had first been approved for individual health insurance policies was so badly written that neither of us, despite two sets of graduate degrees, were able to understand it. It was only when we received a bill that we realized coverage had been approved. After going to a CareFirst office in person to remove me from our CareFirst coverage when I switched to Medicare but leave coverage in place for my wife, the company still miss-handled the conversion and my wife had to have a number of phone calls with the company before she was able to get her coverage continued. Lest you think this is only an issue with CareFirst, I have also found Medicare.gov much easier to negotiate than the websites of United Healthcare for Medicare Supplemental Insurance and websites of Medicare Part D drug coverage providers.
So, for seniors and their family members, take heart. Our experience indicates that Social Security and Medicare are much easier to deal with than your current private insurer. Kudos to the dedicated employees working at the Social Security Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and keep up the good work. America’s seniors need you.
For all of us as citizens, we need to admit there are times when government works and may even work better than the private sector – despite what you will hear during this Presidential election year. And before you say it – the cost to operate Social Security and Medicare is also lower on a percentage basis than the cost to provide private insurance.