November 20, 2017
I few weeks ago I asked why it is such a struggle to save enough for retirement. The post gave several reasons, most of which are part of the human condition. We procrastinate or make excuses. One comment, though, stuck with me. That reader suggested that for too many, the reasons they don't save is because they can't: there is barely enough to survive, much less invest for the future.
She was right, of course. For those of us lucky or privileged to enjoy a satisfying retirement, and I am definitely in that category, the types of problems she identified are hard for many of us to grasp. In fact, the reaction may be to blame the person who isn't doing well for their own fate or lack of planning. But, stepping back for a moment and looking at what is happening in our society and the world may bring a fresh understanding to these struggles.
It is not new information that income equality in the United States is increasing. The rich control more of the nation's (and world's) wealth, while many middle and lower class folks find themselves drifting sideways or declining in economic terms. Recent figures suggest the top 1% control 39% of this country's wealth. That means just over 3 million of our fellow citizens have the economic power to directly affect the lives of 125 million of us.
What is of special concern to readers of this blog is that among seniors the economic inequality is growing faster than the population as a whole. According to a recent study, only those 65+ in Mexico and Chile have seen the gap between well-off and low income seniors increase faster than in America.
The loss of many well-paying jobs along with the rapid decline in employer-funded pensions are major factors. Less than half of today's workers have a retirement plan at work that isn't completely self-funded. Wage and benefit inequalities follow us from the working world into retirement. With fewer resources to save and no help from employers, the cycle of falling behind starts early and gets worse as we get older.
Social Security has had minimal COLA increases for several years, not enough to stay even with inflation or increases in Medicare premiums.
Relentless increases in health care costs affect retirees just as the need for those services grow with age. The percentage of the population that is medically obese is higher in the United States than in any other developed country. Some of that obesity is self-inflicted, some is not. Regardless, this serious health risk is more prevalent among the poorer segments of society, putting an even greater strain on economic conditions.
Lower income seniors must depend on less-than-sufficient savings and Social Security to get by. The luckiest ones may be able to lean on their family for extra help. But, such is not the case for most. America has the self-image of being the richest nation on earth, yet, that richness is very concentrated among a very few. Too many on the fringes must fend for themselves.
I don't have a magic answer to balance things out. There is no snap-of-a-finger solution. There are some common sense steps to take, but they require more awareness of the problem than we have exhibited recently. They will require we admit that we, as a society, have a problem that is having serious consequences to our social fabric, a problem that is getting worse over time.
Any specifics that I list could open the door to a political tug-of-war, something I'd rather avoid. But, in general, policies that encourage retirement savings through tax-advantaged programs, incentives for employers to strengthen retirement savings accounts at work, and a tax code that doesn't tilt the playing field so obliviously toward those who are doing just fine would help. Strengthening the support system for those who struggle with medical care seems like a helpful step.
Our economic system of capitalism has always produced winners and losers. Some people will be poor stewards of their resources and not prepare for their future. Those are not the people I am writing about.
What is happening now is the senior, the retiree, is becoming one of the most vulnerable segments of our population. In addition to expressing your feelings to your representatives and voting your beliefs, I urge you to look for ways to be more personally engaged. Help an aging family member or relative who is struggling. Find some time to volunteer at a senior center or hospice organization. Decide that some of your charity donations next year will go to support struggling seniors. Help a senior prepare his or her taxes so expensive mistakes aren't made. Visit a shut-in with a meal every once in awhile. Walk an elderly neighbor's dog or offer to take a pet to the groomer.
As individuals we can't solve the income inequality dilemma. But, as individuals maybe we can find a way to help a struggling senior find a bit more joy in life, and ease a person's burden even just a little.
November 17, 2017
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
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
- Cosmetic surgery
- 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
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.