Medicare—Surprising facts and critical changes

The goal in retirement (or financial independence after age 65) is to be able to support our lifestyle using accumulated assets, Social Security and Medicare. It has become evident that Social Security and Medicare had to change to continue to sustain future retirees. The loss of the Social Security ‘file and suspend’ strategy for anyone who is not 66 by the end of April, 2016 has received a lot of media attention. Yet, major changes in Medicare have garnered much less publicity although no less important to retirement planning.

From our retirement planning vantage point, we believe the new Medicare changes will add a significant wrinkle to what is a already a very fine balance between distributions from portfolios, income tax liability, and funding our client’s ideal retirement lifestyle.

This short educational article outlines a few surprising (even shocking) facts that everyone should know about Medicare. For more details (particularly those approaching 63 or are two years from switching to Medicare from employer plans), I recommend that you read, in detail, the annually released official US Government Medicare Handbook. The 2016 version of this booklet is available at

  • Medicare Alphabet Soup (A, B, C, D) are not all free – The 2.9% current premium paid to Medicare on your earnings while employed only provides for free Medicare Part A coverage. Part A only covers hospital insurance, not comprehensive health insurance. Medicare Part A participation, however, does provide access to the other Parts that, when taken together, can constitute a comprehensive health insurance plan able to meet specific needs. Part B is basic medical insurance. When combined with Part A it is termed “Original Medicare.” A and B combined isn’t enough to cover everything you’ll need. Part D is a premium paid for drug insurance. It is incredibly complex as specific drugs fall in and out of favor within each plan. On the other hand, Part C is an integrated health plan that usually includes Part A, B, and D. It is often called “Medicare Advantage.” Finally, you may encounter Medigap coverage (which has its own alphabet soup) to cover areas missed by Medicare A, B, C or D.
  • Basic Costs: Average costs are difficult to estimate and are often not as low as many expect. Part B would seem very well priced at less than $1,500 per year and yet in the real world we seldom find these ideal rates. Instead, we find health insurance through Medicare averages around $4K-6K per person per year. Moreover, rates are expected to rise significantly in 2018 because of surcharges.
  • Enrollment in Medicare is not all automatic and requires strict attention to timelines. Timelines appear long (for example, 7 months for the initial enrollment) but to avoid penalties and loss of coverage you will need to act early in the timelines (most wait until their birthday month and may find that they have a gap in insurance coverage even though they make the enrollment timeline). To avoid penalties, initial enrollment into Medicare is 3 months before your birthday month and extends to three months after. If you have approved coverage (for example, from an employer health plan) and need to transition to Medicare you will have a “Special Enrollment Period” with its own timelines that must be initiated prior to leaving your employer approved health coverage (excluding COBRA).
  • There are hefty penalties that stay with you for life if you miss an enrollment timeline – Penalties for missing enrollment timelines into Part B are currently an additional 10% of your normal premium cost for every 12 months delayed. Part D penalties are 1% per month delayed. These penalties continue throughout your enrolled life, meaning that you’ll pay more for the same coverage. For example, if you enroll 3 years later than required, the premium you pay for the same Medicare Part B coverage is 30% higher. If you also missed enrolling in Part D, the premium is 36% higher.
  • Once you enroll in Medicare you can no longer make H.S.A. contributions. Once you begin collecting Social Security you are required to enroll in Medicare Part A, which eliminates your ability to participate in certain plan features. For example, it disallows the annual tax-free H.S.A. contributions.
  • There is free personalized health insurance counseling. You should use it to design the best plan for yourself and to fully understand what you need to do each year to make the most of the health care plan you chose (given your expected annual health care needs). In addition, work closely with your Wealth Manager to ensure that you distribute your wealth in the least costly manner given your lifestyle and available assets.
  • Not all health insurance plans are available in all locations. When planning your Medicare health plan, use the community you are planning to retire into to get the most accurate list of health plans available. There is also a 5-Star rating website, provided by Medicare, to help you choose the best available plan in your area.
  • Since 2007 Medicare has been MEANS tested (i.e., dependent on income). Additional income-based premiums can come as a surprise, but what is perhaps more shocking are the new income limits that will begin in 2018. For the moment, surcharges to Medicare premiums begin at $85K and $170K MAGI (Modified Adjusted Gross Income for those filing as single or married filing jointly). Currently, the surcharges top out at $390/month or $4,700/year for Part B for those with MAGI greater than $214K and $428K (single versus married filings). Separate surcharges apply for other Parts. But take note—starting in 2018, the surcharges will apply to a lower MAGI. The largest surcharges will be for those with MAGI over $160K and $320K. An additional surprise is that the earnings that will be used to calculate your Medicare Premium surcharge (also known as the annual “Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amounts” or IRMAA) will be based on your income tax filing from two years earlier. For example, if you enroll in Medicare in 2018 they will use your 2016 taxes to estimate your IRMAA (there is a process to appeal surcharges).
  • The income included in determining additional premiums is based on your adjusted income PLUS any tax-free income (such as Muni bond interest) – MAGI (in these scenarios) includes all ordinary income (work earnings, pre-tax withdrawals, pensions, etc.), plus 50% of Social Security collected, plus tax exempt interest. It doesn’t include H.S.A. or Roth distributions or loan proceeds. Annual distribution will now need to be tightly connected to your MAGI.
  • A “cost of living” gift from the ‘Hold Harmless’ rule – For some, the “Hold Harmless” rule provides additional premium savings. This benefits those who have their Medicare Part B deducted directly from their social security. This rule prohibits increases in Medicare Part B premiums when there is no similar increase in Social Security benefits. The ‘Hold Harmless’ rule evaporates for anyone not deducting their premiums from Social Security, or if they pay additional premium surcharges (because of income limits), or if it is their first year in Medicare (plus a few other exceptions).

These changes to Medicare (and likely new changes in the future) will make it essential that your accumulated wealth be deployed in a manner that will allow you to have the necessary cash flow for your chosen lifestyle while maximizing the various MEANS adjusted benefits.

It has always been our recommendation that clients have more than just pre-tax savings, Social Security, and a pension to support their retirement distribution. Going forward, Roth and H.S.A. savings will unquestionably become even more powerful adjunct retirement planning tools since they are tax free and not part of Medicare MAGI Means testing.

Know the facts about Medicare. An educated consumer is better equipped to make sound choices leading up to retirement and much more likely to secure the retirement lifestyle they have in mind.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®

Important Changes To Social Security That May Impact Your Retirement Plans

As you may be aware, significant changes to the Social Security program were signed into law November 2nd by President Obama (see news items in November “Nibbles”). As your financial advisor, I believe it is important to keep you abreast of these changes as they are likely to impact your retirement plans. Some clients will be required to take appropriate action over the next 5 months.

To be clear, the two Social Security planning strategies that were eliminated on November 2nd are still available to those older or turning 66 by April 29th, 2016 for “file and suspend” and those who are at least age 62 by December of 2015 for “Restricted Application.” These individuals are not affected by the November 2nd changes. However, anyone else will no longer have these strategies available in retirement.

At Aikapa, we will give priority to those that need to act immediately to retain ending benefits and then methodically work our way through the retirement plans of our other clients.


Two widely-used Social Security planning strategies were eliminated by Congress without much discussion, notice, or fanfare, impacting the retirement plans of many Americans.  The two strategies were “File and Suspend” and “Restricted Application for spousal benefits”.  The two strategies usually operated hand-in-hand, but could be employed separately. There are always tradeoffs to retirement planning strategies, but these two strategies typically added 3 to 5 years of additional coverage in retirement.

“File and Suspend” involved one person filing for Social Security at full retirement age (currently, it is 66 years old) and then suspending this filing. The net effect was that they’d file to collect on their Social Security record and then decline to collect.  These two actions allowed other family members to file for benefits based on the that person’s Social Security record while they continued to let their own Social Security benefit grow, often until age 70. Four years at 8% per year would have increased the Social Security benefit substantially. For those that didn’t immediately need the benefit, the option was an obvious “no brainer.”  According to the new rules, the option to File and Suspend ends for anyone that is younger than 66 by April 29th, 2016 (in other word, anyone born after April 29, 1950).

“Restricted Application for spousal benefits” allowed one person to file (i.e., the “filer”) based on their spouse’s record, but only after their spouse’s record was activated.  The spousal benefit was always ½ of the benefit entitled by the person who paid for the Social Security benefit (at full retirement age). The spousal benefits would be collected based on the spouse’s record allowing the filer to grow their own Social Security benefits.  Though often useful, this strategy of collecting based on a spouse’s Social Security benefits while allowing their own to grow will end for anyone younger than 62 as of December 31, 2015 (or those born after 1953).  According to the new rules, if your spouse files and suspends prior to April 29th or is collecting Social Security then you will be able to file a restricted application IF you turn 62 by December of this year.

If you were born prior to 1954 and these two strategies are relevant to your retirement plan, don’t be surprised to find that we’ll be reaching out to you this month.  If we don’t reach out to you this month, do let us know if you or your loved ones need assistance capturing these ending social security benefits.

For all of us, this is a reminder that all benefits are bound by rules that have planning consequences and require ongoing attention.  For many, this change to the Social Security program will mean either an adjustment to spending during retirement, or more likely, require additional annual savings prior to pre-retirement (or other wealth creation strategies).

Always feel free to call or let me know if you have any question with this or other financial matters.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®