Well, It’s That Time – Social Security

Next month my Social Security payments begin. I chose to start them because I have reached what the Social Security Administration calls “full retirement age.” This is not the same for everyone. Until a few years ago it was 65, for people in my bracket it is 66, and Congress has increased the age even further for younger people today.

No matter what one’s “full retirement age” is, we can start Social Security at 62. This is absolutely necessary because there are so many people with jobs that involve physical activity they can no longer perform, people who have lost their jobs and left the job market (these are not included among “unemployed” in case you’re wondering), and always a special concern to me, people with mental disabilities. Whatever the reason, Social Security can begin at 62. The issue is that benefits are reduced for each year one takes them prior to “full retirement age” so benefits at 62 can be much lower than a person anticipates. By pushing the full retirement age higher, Congress also punished people who need it earlier.

The SSA is also willing to reward people who delay accepting benefits past the full retirement age. The increase is currently in the range of 6% to 8% per year. If you have most of your money in interest bearing savings accounts or bonds, that looks like a great rate–substantially higher than what you can earn in such investments. A national investment newsletter recently published an article lauding the strategy of waiting as long as you can.

But the advice strikes me as incorrect. The SSA is not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They have actuarial tables and they know when we will no longer be needing Social Security, at least in aggregate. In other words, whenever we die, we stop receiving Social Security. Forever.

What that means as far as I can figure out is that the rate increase of even 8% is phony. Because while it is true you will start off with that increase, you will also lose all the money you would have received while waiting. A strategy of investing the Social Security you are receiving might not reap 8% over those years, but you (and your heirs) will not lose whatever that amounts to at your passing–and that strikes me as a much better deal.

If my math is correct, I suggest that people should not wait beyond their full retirement age. Start collecting it then. If you don’t need it, invest it. Or give it to charity. But betting against actuarial tables is, in my opinion, a sucker bet.

Health Care in Post Revolutionary America

We’re coming up on the first anniversary of my encounter with the American system of health care, so I think it’s worth doing a little recap and asking a few questions. I’ll keep this as short as I can, but health care is a complicated topic, so I hope you can spare a few minutes to read it in full.

Back in 2010 I retired from the University of Michigan a few years earlier than most people can consider such a thing. The largest obstacle many of you will face in taking early retirement if you are US citizens living in the US is the question of how you are going to obtain health care. And let me explain that I didn’t take early retirement so that I could play golf or sit on my butt, my object was (and is) to see if i can do something with my life more in line with what I set out to do after college. For my first year out I spent time trying to help folks living with a mental illness and now I am engaged in teaching Biblical languages and literature at the University level. With a little help from the Almighty and my friends I might see the day when I complete the Ph.D. I started to write in 1979.

Back to health care. Shortly after I agreed to the terms of the early retirement, the University of Michigan informed me that I could continue to receive their health care plan, but the cost would be $1,400 per month. As generous as the retirement offer was, there would have been no way that I could have afforded to pay that out of pocket. The reason I could consider taking the University of Michigan up on an offer to retire early was that I have a supportive spouse who agreed to carry me on her health plan. And so, with health care presumably under control, I took the offer.

A year after I retired, my wife received an attractive offer from the University of Tennessee Knoxville (UTK). Since I was retired, it was easy to give the offer serious consideration and we ultimately decided to take it. I arrived in Knoxville slightly before Terri just after Thanksgiving 2011. And just after I arrived, I suffered a pretty severe injury to my left knee brought on by all the moving activity. I wound up in the ER of UT where they spent some time making sure that I wasn’t going to bleed to death or need an amputation, and then they sent me home with a referral and advice to follow up with x-rays, etc. That’s when the “fun” began.

At that time (late November 2011) I was fully covered by the health plan of the University of Michigan. Beginning on January 1, 2012 I was fully covered under the health care plan of the University of Tennessee. At no time, not one day, was I lacking health care insurance. Nevertheless, I found myself effectively deprived of health care for about six weeks. This is how that happened.

As soon as I returned from the ER, I did what I was supposed to do under the terms of my Michigan insurance. I called the plan to inform them of the injury and to request that they authorize the recommended care. They cheerfully informed me that less the deductible, my ER visit was fully covered. They also said I was welcome to obtain all the follow-up care recommended by the ER with my “primary physician.” I pointed out that I was living in Knoxville and the primary physician was in Dexter, Michigan. They recommended that I fly or take the bus so I could receive my health care. When I pointed out that the health care was supposed to be covered when I was living outside Michigan, they replied, yes, that’s true, but you have to prove that you have lived outside the state for three years before that kicks in.

I wasn’t going to leave my spouse to deal with all the moving issues as she settled into her new position in Knoxville, so I just “toughed it out” reasoning that I would soon be covered by health care via the University of Tennessee. On January 2, now legally covered by UTK, I called a physician who had been recommended to me here in Knoxville. His appointments secretary looked me up “in the system” and informed me that since I wasn’t listed (yet) she could not offer me an appointment. I was flabbergasted. Really? She went on to explain that the UTK policy was that claims have to be filed within two weeks of the appointment or they would be automatically denied. It can take two or three weeks for the coverage to show up, and so in the past they have lost the ability to collect their fee for service because of this policy. As a result, they adopted their own policy which is not to see anyone who doesn’t appear on the claims list.

I did not have to wait the month or so this would have meant. I had made a physician friend in the community and he called to ask me how things were going. When I explained all this to him, he called the physician directly and the following day, the appointments secretary was back on the phone to me offering me an appointment. Altogether, I was unable to see a follow-up physician after my accident for six weeks.

This is how it was for a person with some of the best health care insurance in America. And all of the barriers to care that I experienced can be chalked up to insurance companies. Had I lived in Canada, England, New Zealand or tiny Israel I would have received prompt, good attention to my medical needs without fuss or muss. But in America, with our vaunted health care as available to those lucky enough to have insurance, I was treated like a pauper begging for care. Actually worse, because a pauper might have been eligible for indigent care.

The political silly season is now upon us. I am unconvinced that the problems I have experienced will be ameliorated by Obamacare because I don’t think Obamacare does much to reign in insurance abuse. What I would like to know is what precisely Romney/Ryan will do to improve this situation. I understand they oppose Obamacare (as I do). But that’s not good enough. While I dislike Obamacare, I think it is better than the nothing we had before Obamacare. Getting rid of Obamacare only puts us back to an even worse situation. What is the solution to this insanity we have in our country? Under what clause of what Romney/Ryan plan would I have been able to receive medical attention in less than the six weeks it took?