Advertisement

How to avoid the costly Medicare mistake that too many people make

How to avoid the costly Medicare mistake that too many people make
One of the most common retirement mistakes is failing to sign up for Medicare Part B, which results in costly delays and penalties. (Dreamstime / TNS)

Dear Liz: My husband retired last year at 74. He had originally signed up for Medicare Part A and Part B. But during his employment, he cancelled Part B because of the company's private health insurance. When he retired, we used COBRA to continue that insurance coverage for our family. (I’m not Medicare eligible, and we have a son.) Our COBRA coverage ends in a few weeks.

My husband was told he has to wait until January 2019 to enroll in Part B and will not have coverage until July 2019. He is ineligible for VA benefits and has costly medical expenses. I was able to get an Obamacare plan because coming off COBRA triggers a special enrollment period for me, but he cannot get coverage because he is Medicare eligible.

Advertisement

What a dilemma. No one told us when he retired that he should get back on Part B right away and not take the COBRA offered. Now, when he does get Part B, he will also pay a 20% premium penalty each month for life. We are shocked that the system works like this. Any ideas how to get out of this mess?

Answer: Your husband isn’t alone in misunderstanding the importance of signing up for Part B after retirement. Unfortunately, there’s probably no remedy.

For those who don’t know, Medicare Part A is the hospital coverage that’s provided to people 65 and older. They don’t pay premiums for this coverage. People do, however, pay premiums for Medicare Part B, which covers doctors’ visits and other medical costs. Those who are still working and covered by an employer’s plan often forgo Medicare Part B. Once their employment ends, though, they’re expected to sign up for Part B within 8 months or they pay a 10% premium for every 12 months they failed to sign up. They also have to wait for the regular Medicare enrollment window to roll around, which can leave them exposed to some hefty medical bills in the meantime.

“This is the biggest mistake people make and seriously this rule needs to be changed,” says Carolyn McClanahan, a physician and certified financial planner in Jacksonville, Fla.

There is a process known as “equitable relief” that allows people to request immediate enrollment and the waiving of the penalty, but you have to prove that the failure to enroll was the result of “error, misrepresentation or inaction” by a federal employee or anyone authorized by the federal government to act on its behalf, according to the Social Security Administration. So it’s not enough to inadvertently make a mistake. You have to prove you were misled. You can read more here: https://www.medicarerights.org/PartB-Enrollment-Toolkit/Equitable-Relief.pdf

Waiting your way to better retirement benefits

Dear Liz: You recently wrote, “When you apply for Social Security now, you’re ‘deemed’ (considered by the Social Security Administration) to be applying for both your own benefit and any available spousal benefit. If a spousal benefit is larger, you’ll get that, and you can’t switch back to your own later.”

I turn 62 in August and recently visited the Social Security Administration to apply for benefits. I worked for 20 years and earned a benefit of $1,400 a month if I waited to apply at 66. Since I was applying at the earlier age of 62, my benefit is lowered to about $1,000 a month. Half of my husband’s benefit is $1,300 a month but I was told my only choices are to take $1,000 at the earlier age of 62 or wait another four years and take my full benefit at $1,400.

What makes me incensed is that had I not worked at all, I would be eligible to take the higher amount of $1,300 spousal benefit at 62. This makes no sense!

Answer: No, it doesn’t, and it may be because you’re misunderstanding what you were told.

Your spousal benefit is half of your husband’s benefit only if you wait until your own full retirement age, 66, to take it. Social Security benefits are reduced if you start early.

If his benefit is currently $2,600, your spousal benefit now would be about 35% of that, or $904. Since your own benefit reduced for an early start is $1,000, you would get the larger of the two checks, or $1,000. If you wait until your full retirement age, you’ll get a substantially larger check — and it will still be bigger than your spousal benefit.

Liz Weston, certified financial planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the "Contact" form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.

Advertisement
Advertisement