Medicare Mess

By Tom Margenau

December 21, 2015 6 min read

I should have kept my mouth shut. I just knew I never should have written last week's column in which I attempted to explain the Medicare Part B premium mess. And that's because almost before the ink was dry and your newspaper landed on your front door step, Congress changed the rules.

Regular readers of this column know that I don't like wading into Medicare's murky waters -- partly because the program is such a mess, but mainly because as a retired Social Security Administration employee, I really don't know all that much about it. Even though many people think that Social Security and Medicare are two peas in a pod, they really are more like a turnip and a potato -- similar, but two entirely different starchy fillers.

The Medicare program is administered by a federal agency called the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, usually known as CMS. But because CMS does not have field offices around the country, they rely on SSA to get people enrolled in the program and to deduct Medicare Part B premiums from people's Social Security checks.

So as a retired SSA employee, I know a little bit about Medicare enrollment policies. But that is pretty much where my expertise ends. However, because most people think that as someone who worked for Social Security for 32 years, I must be a Medicare expert, I get lots of questions about the federal health insurance program. And for the past month, I've gotten hundreds of inquiries from people about a proposed increase in Medicare premiums. I'm not going to rehash the story. Suffice it to say, some people were scheduled to pay higher premiums next year and some weren't. And last week's column explained who and why.

But the recent budget deal struck between Congress and the Obama administration looks like it will stave off any Medicare premium increases next year for everyone. As I am writing this, the budget has yet to be passed by Congress and signed by the president. But that will likely happen. So seniors once again get a sweet deal from their elected representatives. They won't have to fully pay for all the health care services provided by the Part B Medicare program. (As I pointed out in last week's column, we pass on the bulk of the costs to our kids. Working taxpayers pick up at least 75 percent of the costs of our Medicare Part B program.)

So now I will shut up about Medicare and stick to what I know best. I'll use the rest of this column to answer readers' Social Security questions.

Q: I am getting Social Security disability benefits because I have cancer. I get $1,900 per month and my daughter currently gets $950. When I die, how much will she get? Also, will my husband qualify for benefits on my record? He is working and makes a six-figure income.

A: Your daughter is currently getting a rate equal to 50 percent of your benefit. But the survivor's rate goes up to 75 percent. In other words, after your death, your daughter will start getting $1,425 per month. Because of your husband's income, he won't be due any benefits. However, your daughter's Social Security checks will be sent to him in his name as her caretaker.

Q: I will be 66 in two years. I have been anticipating getting the maximum Social Security benefit because I have always had maximum earnings. But I was just laid off. I won't reach the maximum for the next couple years. I am very worried about this. How will my benefit be impacted?

A: As I've explained many times in this column, there is nothing magical or special about getting the so-called "maximum" Social Security benefit. It's currently pegged at about $2,663 per month. That would be the amount payable to someone who is 66 years old this year and has paid taxes on the maximum taxable wage base for the past 35 years. If you come up a couple years short of that, you might end up with maybe $2,600 per month. So don't sweat it. It's no big deal. It's not like you get a gold star pasted to your Social Security card if you are getting the maximum Social Security benefit.

And by the way, there are many people who get way more than that so-called "maximum" rate. There are many people who continue working into their 70s and even beyond, and many of those folks get a bump in their benefits each year and are getting much more than $2,663.

Q: If my ex-husband dies, can I get his Social Security?

A: Well, that's like asking, "Can I get a new car next year?' The answer depends on lots of factors. You would be due divorced widow's benefits if you are at least 60 years old, if you are currently not married, if you are not working (unless you are over age 66), and if you are not due higher benefits on your own Social Security account. And those still aren't all the "ifs." You will have to talk to folks at your local Social Security office and explain your circumstances to find out if you are eligible.

Tom Margenau’s weekly column, “Social Security and You,” can be found at creators.com.

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