November 17, 2017

Sexual Harassment and Abuse: The Lid Has Been Torn Off


The last few months have brought a unsettling problem back into the spotlight: sexual harassment and abuse charges against several powerful and well-known men. From politics to entertainment, religion to business, these lurid stories of women, and some men, being victims of unwelcome, inappropriate, and illegal sexual advancements are being reported with stunning regularity.

The Me Too hashtag on Twitter shows almost 2 million uses in just the last month. Researchers say that an overwhelming majority of women, and a surprisingly high percentage of men, have been sexually harassed at some point in their lives. 

Until this all came to the foreground, I am afraid I was blissfully unaware of the size of the problem. I know that many men in positions of authority use sex as a tool of power or intimidation. Reports of affairs and cheating are depressingly common. 

Yet, the current list of people affected along with the social and personal costs of these crimes is beyond anything I knew existed. I should have been more aware. I raised two daughters. I had the normal dad concerns  about teenage boys and hormones. I also knew that at least one of my daughters and my wife had suffered through periods of sexual harassment at school and work.

But, until the news headlines and #MeToo campaign made this a topic of conversation, it wasn't a part of their past I thought about. Now, they tell me every female they know suffered some of the same sexual indignities. 

I was shocked at how close to home these stories can strike. This isn't just a Hollywood or Washington issue. I became angry at the people who do this every day and get away with it until someone has the courage to risk everything by saying, "Enough." 

I do caution myself that an accusation isn't always a fact. Today, just the suggestion of a sexual misdeed can end a career or a life's reputation. So, care must be taken that someone doesn't use these charges as a weapon. However, when multiple people report similar behavior or details are specific, there comes a feeling that behind the smoke is a nasty fire. To simply dismiss the charges as old news or fake is not acceptable.

Frankly, as a male, I hesitated even writing about this topic. I am aware that the emotional and physical scars on the victims are real and long-lasting. The mix of feelings these assaults trigger are more complicated than I could ever understand. 

But, as a human being, regardless of my sex, I can be appalled at the affront to personal dignity and sense of self that these events cause. To stay quiet, even if I say something wrong, seems even worse.


November 14, 2017

A Quick Medicare Primer


This post originally ran in September, 2012. Last week a regular blog reader mentioned how helpful it was to him when he was researching his options.  I noticed it is still getting some views even after 5 years, so I thought it would be good to bring it back for new readers and those who are now close to 65 and looking for a simple review. I have freshened it up a bit from the original.

Here you go!


One query that pops up rather often a concern about Medicare. The worry is not about the fate of the program or asking for help in determining what the politicians are likely to do (good question!). No, it is much more basic: "Please explain Medicare to me" or  "What decisions do I need to make?"

Disclaimer: I am still about 19 months away from qualifying for Medicare coverage, so I can't speak from experience. However, I'll do my best to summarize what you need to know. I will be covering Medicare, not Medicaid which is an entirely different program. As with most federal programs and health insurance coverage there are enough exemptions and differences to fill 20 posts. I will only attempt to explain the usual, most common situations.

Medicare is a federal program that pays for certain health-related expenses for people 65 and older. While many costs are covered, an individual enrolled in Medicare is responsible for certain deducible and copays. Some services are not covered at all and others for only a limited period of time.

There are four parts of Medicare:

Part A is hospital insurance. Copays, deductibles, or coinsurance will determine what you pay. Usually there is no premium for Part A.

Part B is medical insurance that helps pay for doctor visits, outpatient care, health health care, and equipment. There is a monthly premium for Part B.

Part C is better known as Medicare Advantage. This is coverage provided by Medicare approved private insurance companies.

Part D is prescription drug coverage. This is also run by Medicare-approved private insurance companies.


Most folks get Part A and Part B automatically. If you receive benefits from Social Security you will automatically get Part A & B coverage starting the first day of the month you turn 65.  If you aren't yet receiving Social Security (because you are still working for waiting until your full retirement age of 66 or later) you must sign up 3 months before your 65th birthday to get Medicare coverage.

If you must sign up (as noted above) there is something called the Initial Enrollment Period which is the period from 3 moths before until 3 months after your 65th birthday. If you miss this window your benefits will be delayed.

If you decide to wait until after the Initial Enrollment Period, there is a general Enrollment Period during the first three months of each year. However, if you use this option, realize your part B premiums will be higher.

If you are covered by a group health plan at your place of employment  and then want to start Medicare, there is another time period, called the Special Enrollment Period that generally allows you to avoid the higher premiums for late sign up.

With me so far?


Other Factors to Consider

Medicare does not pay 100% of most services. So-called Obamacare has put in place several free screening tests for those on Medicare, like colonoscopies and mammograms. But, most doctor visits, tests, drugs, and equipment are going to cost you money...usually something approaching 20%. That's where Medigap coverage enters the picture. This is a policy, sold by a private insurance company, that acts as secondary coverage to Medicare and pays what is left over after Medicare pays what it will.

Just like the rest of Medicare there is a specific enrollment period for Medigap coverage. You can buy any policy that is offered for sale in your state, regardless of your health status. The amount of supplemental coverage, the monthly cost, and any deductibles are different for each policy offered. You decide how much supplemental help you want and can afford.

Speaking of costs, Part A Medicare coverage costs you nothing since you already paid into the Medicare fund while you were working. Part B coverage does carry a monthly cost. For 2012 most pay $99.90 per month (for 2017 it is $104.90). There is also a small deductible. Part D prescription coverage costs vary depending on the plan you select and the level of drug coverage.

The infamous donut hole is a gap in coverage where you are mostly responsible for drugs after you have spent a certain amount each year. The "hole" closes after you have passed the yearly maximum. Depending what happens with Obamacare or its successor,  the donut hole is currently scheduled to come to an end in 2020.


What is Covered?


There is no simple answer to that question. Medicare publishes a 150 page booklet that still suggests calling for specifics. But, in general, here is what you can expect:


Part A pays part or all of inpatient hospital care, inpatient care at a skilled nursing facility, hospice care services, and home health care services. As you might guess there are all sorts of qualifications and exclusions for this list but this is the primary purpose of Part A coverage.

Part B helps cover medically necessary services like doctor visits, outpatient care, durable medical equipment, and several preventive services and screenings.

Part C is the designation of Medicare-approved private insurance companies that has various coverage options and costs. You still have Part A and Part B coverage, but the specifics are likely to be different from original Medicare. Generally, coverage is more complete but the costs are higher.

Part D covers some of your presecition drug costs. If you don't need a lot of drugs now, it still may be wise to take this coverage because of late enrollment penalties. Part D is provided by private insurance companies and varies widely in costs and coverage. There are usually copays and deductibles involved. The "Donut Hole" limits coverage on what these plans will pay for your drugs. 


Importantly, these items are not covered by Medicare (not a complete list):
  • Routine Dental care
  • Dentures
  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Acupunture
  • Hearing Aids
  • Exams for fitting hearing aids
  • Long term care


If you'd like more detailed information or see if specific services are covered,  this government website should be your first stop.

The official government handbook Medicare and You is also a must-have resource.


November 12, 2017

Cyber Attacks & Ransomware: Is There No End?


It is hard to not worry about the safety of our inner-connected world. Malware, ransomware, hackers, phishing, trolls....the list of people and organizations who want to make our life difficult, dangerous, and expensive seems to grow as quickly as algae in a backyard swimming pool. On average, there are 244 new cyber threats a day. I am a humble example, as my post of a few months ago made clear when a hacker broke into my computer.

Your patient information from your health insurer, or financial details ripped from your credit card company are fair game. Disabling a hospital's admittance system for an entire country happened this past summer. And, don't even get me started on Equifax. Making money off my private information, giving me no way to "opt out," and then losing it all. Enough!

If you follow even the most basic of common sense steps, the odds of your home computer becoming someone else's to control are increasingly possible. Those who decided to hack into my computer found nothing of interest unless they love scrolling through tens of thousands of photos of our vacations. Passwords are not stored there, nor is any critical personal information. 

If someone held my files for ransom, I'd simply use that as an excuse to get a new computer. They'd never get a penny (or Bitcoin) from me. So, I assume the reason for all the malware stuffed into my system was to seize control of my computer and use it to send out attacks to others. Scary stuff.

That should really be one of our biggest concerns: that our computers can be used to infect others. My system (and yours) could be used to send out millions of e-mails in giant phishing waves or denial of service attacks on businesses or governments. We would be part of the problem, but completely oblivious. 

Personally, I  upgraded to a more secure router to add a little more protection. . I discontinued the automatic printer ink monitoring service offered by a certain company. Allowing them to enter my home system to read ink levels on a printer seemed too risky in today's environment. I change passwords on a regular basis. I added a new malware protection software program. Even so, I know I am not safe. Maybe changing to Apple products would help, but even Macs are now being hacked; read about the Fruitfly malware or realize that viruses can breach the Apple defenses. Own a computer and you are vulnerable.

Actually, my biggest fear is much more global. Everything in our daily lives is linked to computer systems. The news reports make it quite clear none of them is secure enough to stop a dedicated attack. The havoc that is possible if businesses or hospitals, air transport systems or government agencies are compromised is serious. 

What keeps me up at night is the very real likelihood of a successful breach of the systems that control our electric grids, water treatment plants, or oil pipelines. If (or when) this happens, we will have crossed the line from irritating, embarrassing, and expensive, to life-threatening.

There is absolutely nothing I can do about this type of attack on our way of life. I have to believe others, smarter than I, are dedicating serious time and effort to making these events stay where they belong: in a fiction novel. 

It is impossible to disconnect from our interconnected world. What I must do is be aware of what is happening, protect my little corner of the world the best that I can, and then lead my life as I choose. The benefits of having the Internet and all it brings still outweigh the risks.

What about you? Have you done anything to protect yourself as best you can? Have you altered how you use computers? What happens when you find out a company that holds your credit card info has been hacked? What was your reaction to the Equifax disaster? What can you do about it? 

This is one area where, literally, we are all in this together. Let's share and discuss.


Note: As I write this a new ransomware attack, Bad Rabbit, has targeted Russia, Ukraine, was well as other eastern European countries, Japan, and the U.S. There really is no end in sight.



November 9, 2017

I'm Retiring...How About My Mortgage?

Whether to pay off a mortgage before or just after retirement is a topic I have addressed before. But, it is such a major decision, I get at least one email every few weeks asking my advice. No wonder. With nearly 30% of all those 65+ having monthly mortgage payments, it is important to make the best choice for you. 

As I write this, the picture is anything but clear. Plans for a tax cut are bouncing around the halls of Congress. As of now, mortgage interest deductions would be protected. But, an increase in the standard deduction and a change in personal deductions might be coupled with the loss of real estate tax deductions, making house ownership potentially more expensive for some. 

So, for purposes of this post, let's stick with how things are right now. After the dust settles in Washington and there is clarity (?) I might do a followup to adjust to the new reality.

Retirement brings its own unique set of concerns and decisions. Near the top of many lists is a decision about housing. Is it best to pay off the mortgage before retirement, or is that extra money better off being invested? If I pay off the house won't I lose a major tax deduction? But, what if I have a major health expense and can't pay the mortgage..could I end up retired and homeless?

Good questions with no clear cut answers. But, they are worth asking and taking a look at some of the ramifications. As an obvious disclaimer, I am not a tax expert or a financial guru, so what I offer is opinion and some basic thoughts from my own research. Please think through your own situation carefully, consult a trusted adviser, and proceed with caution.


If you do a Google search about retirement and mortgages the majority of the sites and articles that rise to the top suggest paying off your home loan before retirement. They do admit that many people can't do that, but it should be a goal.




 The reasons most often cited to pay off your mortgage:


1. Peace of mind. Even without a monthly payment you still have real estate taxes, HOA fees, maintenance, repairs and upgrades. But, if you delay fixing a leaking toilet for two months you won't risk losing your home. That big monthly Must Pay bill is gone.

2. Home equity is available. I strongly suggest this source of cash be used only for major repairs and upgrades to your property or something like a large medical expense. Home equity is not a piggy bank so you can take a 12 day cruise to Hawaii or buy a new truck. Too many people got stuck when they spent their home equity only to find the worth of the house dropped below the size of the loan during the 2008-10 recession. But, with home equity lines of credit at  low interest rates you may save thousands in interest over more conventional loans.

3. You have more freedom to relocate or resize. Get in trouble with your mortgage and someone else might tell you when to move. Have no mortgage and you can decide when to downsize, move closer to the kids....or stay put.

4. You have a large source of retirement money available. If you move to a smaller home or condo or even rent an apartment, any profits after the house sale and purchase are yours (up to a very generous level set by the Federal government). Though expensive and sometimes risky, reverse mortgages can provide a steady income from the equity you have in your residence too. This tactic requires an expert to prevent a serious mistake, however.


On the other side of the argument, these points are made:


1. Don't pull  money from other investments to pay off a cheap mortgage. Even losing the tax deduction of a mortgage may not be enough to make up for better performing investments. If you take a chunk of your retirement funds to pay off a mortgage the money left will not produce as much income or growth.


2. Tying up too much of your net worth in an illiquid asset. You own a $300,000 home free and clear. But, depending on the market conditions it might take you 6-9 months or more to be able to sell the house and see any net profits. If you need quick cash a house is not the place to find it (except through a home equity loan which comes with its own risks).

3. If you have other high interest debts, like credit cards or auto loans, pay those off first to reduce the amount you are losing each month in high interest charges. Only after those debts are satisfied should you consider retiring your home's mortgage.


Another consideration lies in what your plans are about an eventual move. I know that at some point Betty and I  want to move into a continuing care community (CCC). The "buy-in" will be somewhere around $250,000. If we own a home or condo and need to move rather quickly into the CCC because of health issues, our buy-in money will be unavailable until we sell. That may be too late. We are willing to take that risk for now, but will probably move into such a community sooner rather than later.


Again, I will remind you I am not a financial planner or expert. I have bumbled along pretty well for the past several decades, but there is always more to learn and consider. If you are a financial planner, investment guide, or CPA I welcome your input (as long as you aren't trying to sell something!). 

All that said, you have thoughts, concerns, questions, and insight that will help of of us, expert or no. Please add your comments to this important subject. Since a home is generally the biggest expense for most of us in our lifetime, knowing what to do with that resource is vital.