Mailbag Miscellany

By Tom Margenau

December 7, 2016 6 min read

I'm drawing a blank. And I'm blaming it on my bad cold. My head is all stuffed up and I can't think of anything to write about for today's column. So I decided to open my inbox and turn the first four or five questions into a column. Here goes.

Q: I appreciate the recent column you wrote about the confusion people have between Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income payments. Could you please do the same for Medicare and Medicaid? I work in a doctor's office and I swear that three-fourths of the elderly patients I deal with mix them up.

A: I know exactly what you mean. Every single week, I hear from dozens of folks who confuse these two government-run health insurance programs.

In a nutshell, I can explain the major difference this way. Medicare is for anyone, rich or poor, who is 65 or older, or who is getting Social Security disability benefits. Medicaid is for poor people — usually for folks who are on welfare or who are getting SSI benefits. Or to put that another way. Warren Buffet qualifies for Medicare benefits. But he will never be eligible for the Medicaid program.

There are two major parts to Medicare, called A and B. Part A is hospital coverage that helps pay for inpatient hospital bills. It is paid for my payroll taxes deducted from worker's paychecks. Because you pay for it while you are working, the coverage is free once you reach age 65, or once you've been getting Social Security disability benefits for 24 straight months.

Part B of Medicare is called medical insurance. It provides coverage for doctor's visits, lab tests, outpatient hospital care, etc. It is paid for by monthly premiums, usually deducted from your Social Security checks. Anyone 65 or older, or anyone who has been getting Social Security disability benefits for two years in a row, can apply for Part B Medicare coverage. (It is this Part B of Medicare that people usually mistakenly refer to as Medicaid. For example, many folks will tell me that they have "Medicare and Medicaid," when what they really mean to say is that they have Parts A and B of Medicare.)

There are also Parts C and D of Medicare. But they are not as common. Part C is sort of like an HMO version of Medicare. Part D provides prescription drug coverage.

Medicaid helps pay for a broad range of medical services for poor people in this country. It is most frequently tied to our nation's primary welfare program for the elderly and disabled population, the Supplemental Security Income program. So if you are getting SSI, you also will get Medicaid coverage. Even though Medicaid is tied to the federal SSI program, it is administered by state social service agencies, more commonly known as welfare offices.

Q: I am getting Social Security disability benefits. When I die, will my wife qualify for my disability payments?

A: Your wife wouldn't qualify for your "disability payments," per se. But what she could qualify for is monthly widow's benefits, assuming she meets the eligibility criteria. In a nutshell, she would get widow's benefits if she is 60 or older when you die. Or if she is under 60 but has minor children in her care. So if there are no little kids at home, and if she isn't 60 years old when you die, she won't get any of your Social Security until she reaches that age.

Q: Can immigrants who move to this country get Social Security retirement benefits if they have never worked and paid into the Social Security system? Can they get SSI benefits?

A: The quick answers to your questions are "no" and "no." A person must work and pay Social Security taxes for a minimum of 10 years to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits. Certainly, there are noncitizens who get Social Security checks. These are people who came to this country legally and who have lived and worked here long enough to meet that 10-year minimum requirement. So despite all kinds of silly internet rumors to the contrary, there are no immigrants getting Social Security benefits who have not worked and paid Social Security taxes for more than a decade.

And because SSI is a welfare program, U.S. citizenship is required to qualify for benefits. So unless an immigrant becomes a citizen, he or she will never qualify for SSI benefits.

Q: Can I get Social Security disability benefits if I am getting worker's compensation payments?

A: Yes, you can. But one or the other benefit might have to be cut. And that's because there is a law that says the combination of your worker's comp payments and your Social Security disability check cannot exceed 80 percent of whatever your average monthly income was before you became disabled. If the total payments exceed that amount, one or the other must be reduced. Which benefit gets cut varies from state to state.

Looks like there is room for one more question out of the mailbag. And it turns out to be maybe the most common question I get.

Q: I will be 62 years old next year. My husband is 70 and has been getting his Social Security for many years now. Can I apply for wife's benefits on my husband's Social Security record and save my own until I am 66 years old?

A: No, you can NOT do that. The law says you must apply for your own Social Security retirement benefits first. And only after you sign up for your own Social Security can you look to your husband's record and see if you can get any additional benefits from his account.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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