Aging Well: Workshop aims to help residents navigate Social Security, Medicare

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Social Security & Medicare Planning, a workshop hosted by the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and Aging Well, is from 4 to 6 p.m. July 14 at the Steamboat Springs Community Center. The event is free. For more information, call 879-8632.

On the 'Net

• For information about the Social Security and Medicare programs, visit www.ssa.gov and www.medicare.gov.>

• For helpful tips on planning for retirement, visit www.aarp.org/mone... or www.aarp.org/mone...>

Most adults nearing retirement probably aren't looking forward to making decisions about Social Security and Medicare. The federal programs, while an important part of most Americans' retirement security, can be confusing and frustrating to navigate.

The Yampa Valley Community Foundation, in conjunction with the Visiting Nurse Association's Aging Well program, hopes to ease residents' apprehension about Social Security and Medicare during an informational workshop July 14 at the Steamboat Springs Community Center.

The workshop will feature insurance and Social Security experts who will discuss the logistics of qualifying and applying for benefits as well as suggestions for making the best decisions for retirement. Residents also will have the opportunity to ask questions.

"This is part of helping people proactively plan their future with good information," said Betsy Jay, executive director of the Yampa Valley Community Foundation.

While the event targets residents nearing retirement, speakers note the discussion also will be helpful for employers and others interested in learning about options that may best fit their situations.

Social Security basics

So what, exactly, is Social Security?

In a nutshell, it is a federal program providing financial security for individuals who lose income, for example, because of retirement, disability or loss of a spouse or parent, explained Jan Foushee, Regional Communications Director for the Denver Region of the Social Security Administration.

"Social Security is many things to many people," said Foushee, who will provide an overview of the program at next week's workshop.

In order to qualify for benefits, a person must earn at least 40 Social Security credits by paying Social Security taxes, also known as Federal Insurance Contributions Act taxes, which fund both Social Security and Medicare.

A person can earn a maximum of 4 credits a year, meaning they must work at least 10 years to qualify (or for family members to qualify) for Social Security benefits.

The largest portion of beneficiaries is retirees, who may begin collecting their full monthly Social Security benefits between the ages of 65 and 67, depending on the year they were born.

They may opt to collect payments earlier, at the age of 62, though that permanently will reduce their benefits. Delaying Social Security benefits past retirement age will make a person's monthly payments larger.

Deciding when to begin collecting Social Security can have a big effect on a person's retirement outlook. Foushee hopes to help with the planning process by elaborating on details about Social Security and pointing out tools, such as the Social Security Administration's Website (www.ssa.gov) to help residents calculate their benefits and find information specific to their situations.

A "pay as you go" program, workers today are paying Social Security taxes to fund current retirees' benefits. Foushee noted that the program is running at a surplus and, if there are no changes, should pay 100 percent of expected benefits up to 2041.

At that time, following a surge in retiring baby boomers, the program will have funds for roughly 75 percent of expected benefits, she said.

A dysfunctional system

Kenneth Bell isn't shy about his frustration with Medicare.

Based in Denver, Bell is a regional manager for the Western U.S. for America's Health Team, a health insurance brokerage company.

With more than seven years of experience in the health insurance industry, Bell is all too familiar with problems preventing citizens from receiving adequate or cost effective care through Medicare.

Part of his job is helping clients understand the nuances of Medicare supplemental products, offered through private insurance companies, while helping them find the best insurance for their needs.

It won't be hard for Bell to step out of his salesman role Monday, when he will share his experience and insights into Medicare. His discussion will include an overview of the program as well as suggestions for how to best steer through what can be a confusing system of options.

"We can't fix (Medicare) : so we're going to show people a way to work within the confines of a Scotch-taped-together, broken health care model," he said.

While talk of Medicare may seem a bit dry for a warm summer evening, Bell promises a lively and informative discussion that will help people make the system work for them and "put dollars to the bottom line."

"I can assure you it will be exciting," he said.

Most older adults can receive Medicare benefits within a seven-month period surrounding their 65th birthday. If they are receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement benefits, they automatically are signed up for Medicare. If they are not receiving those benefits, they must sign up themselves.

Recipients who have paid enough Social Security taxes receive Medicare Part A, which helps cover hospital bills (as well as hospice, home health and skilled nursing care) where Medicare is accepted, without having to pay a premium.

Recipients have the option of signing up for Medicare Part B, which helps pay for doctor's bills and some preventative services. Part B involves a deductible of $135 (2008) and a monthly premium which is currently about $96 for most people.

From there, Medicare recipients can enroll in a Medicare-approved prescription drug plan and/or supplemental or Medigap insurance through a private insurance company. Medigap plans help pay copayments, premiums or services not covered by Medicare.

Some private insurance companies also offer Medicare Advantage Plans, which provide Original Medicare benefits (Part A and Part B) and additional benefits. Copayments generally are lower, though recipients may be more limited in where and how often they receive care.

This article includes information from "Medicare Plan Choices," and "Getting Started with Medicare," at www.AARP.org.

- Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at tammarie74@yahoo.com. Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and better. For more information, log onto www.agingwelltoday.com or call 871-7676.

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