December Savvy Senior Columns

Here are four new “Savvy Senior” columns  for the month of December:

Savvy Senior – December Columns

  1. The Retirement Benefits of a Health Savings Account
  2. Does Medicare Cover Dental Care?
  3. Have You Checked Your Social Security Statement for Errors?
  4. How to Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder

The Retirement Benefits of a Health Savings Account

Dear Savvy Senior,
What can you tell me about health savings accounts? I’ve been reading that they are a great investment that can help with growing health care costs when I retire.
Planning Ahead

Dear Planning,
It’s true! A health savings account is a fantastic financial tool that can help you build up a tax-free stash of money for medical expenses now and after you retire – but there’s a catch. To get one, you must have a high-deductible health insurance policy.

How They Work
Health savings accounts (or HSAs) have become increasingly popular over the past few years as health care costs continue to skyrocket, and because more and more Americans have gotten high-deductible health plans.

The benefit of a HSA is the triple tax advantage that it offers: Your HSA contributions can be deducted pretax from your paycheck, lowering your taxable income; the money in the account grows tax-free; and if you use the money for eligible medical expenses, withdrawals are tax-free.

And if you change jobs, the HSA moves with you.

To qualify, you must have a health insurance policy with a deductible of at least $1,350 for an individual or $2,700 for a family.

This year (2018), you can contribute up to $3,450 if you have single health insurance coverage, or up to $6,900 for family coverage. Next year (2019) you can contribute slightly more – up to $3,500 for single coverage or up to $7,000 for family coverage. And people age 55 and older can put away an extra $1,000 each year. But you cannot make contributions after you sign up for Medicare.

The money can be used for out-of-pocket medical expenses, including deductibles, co-payments, Medicare premiums, prescription drugs, vision and dental care and other expenses (see IRS.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p502.pdf, page 5, for a complete list) either now or when you retire for yourself and your spouse as well as your tax dependents.

And unlike a flexible spending account, an HSA doesn’t require you to use the money by the end of the year. Rather, HSA funds roll over year to year and continue to grow tax-free in your HSA account for later use. In fact, you’ll get a bigger tax benefit if you use other cash for current medical expenses and keep the HSA money growing for the long term. Be sure to hold on to your receipts for medical expenses after you open your HSA, even if you pay those bills with cash, so you can claim the expenses later. There’s no time limit for withdrawing the money tax-free for eligible medical expenses you incurred anytime after you opened the account.

But be aware that if you do use your HSA funds for non-medical expenses, you’ll be required to pay taxes on the withdrawal, plus a 20 percent penalty. The penalty, however, is waived for those 65 and older, but you’ll still pay ordinary income tax on withdraws not used for eligible expenses.

How to Open a HSA
You should first check with your employer to see if they offer a HSA, and if they will contribute to it. If not, you can open an HSA through many banks, brokerage firms and other financial institutions, as long as you have a qualified high-deductible health insurance policy.

If you plan to keep the money growing for the future, look for an HSA administrator that offers a portfolio of mutual funds for long-term investing and has low fees. HealthEquity, OptumBank, The HSA Authority and Bank of America are the top ranked HSA providers for long-term investing according to the investment research firm Morningstar. To search for providers, visit HSAsearch.com.

After setting up your HSA plan, adding money is pretty straightforward. Most plans let you do online transfers from your bank, send checks directly, or set up a payroll deduction if offered by your employer. And to access your HSA funds many plans provide a debit card, some offer a checkbook and most allow for reimbursement.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

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Does Medicare Cover Dental Care?

Dear Savvy Senior,
I will turn 65 in a few months and will be enrolling in Medicare, but I am concerned about Medicare’s coverage of dental care. Does Medicare cover dental procedures? And if not, where can I get dental coverage?
Almost 65

Dear Almost 65,
Medicare’s coverage of dental care is extremely limited. It will not cover routine dental care including checkups, cleanings, or fillings, and it won’t pay for dentures either.

Medicare will, however, cover some dental services if they are required to protect your general health, or if you need dental care in order for another health service that Medicare covers to be successful. For example, if you have cancer and need dental services that are necessary for radiation treatment, or if you need surgery to treat fractures of the jaw or face, Medicare will pay for these dental services.

Although Medicare’s coverage of dental services is limited, there are other ways you can get coverage and care affordably. Here are several to check into.

Consider a Medicare Advantage plan: While dental services are mostly excluded under original Medicare, some Medicare Advantage plans do provide coverage for routine dental care. If you are considering joining a Medicare Advantage plan, find out what dental services, if any, it covers. Also, remember to make sure any Medicare Advantage plan you’re considering covers the doctors and hospitals you prefer to use and the medications you take at a cost you can afford. See Medicare.gov/find-a-plan or call 800-633-4227 to research plans in your area.

Purchase dental insurance: If you have frequent gum problems and need extensive dental care, a dental insurance plan may be worth the costs versus paying for care yourself. Expect to pay monthly premiums of $15 to $40 or more for insurance. To find dental plans in your state, go to NADP.org and use the “find a dental plan” tool. Then review a specific plan’s website.

Consider dental savings plans: While savings plans aren’t as comprehensive as insurance, they’re a good option for those who can’t get covered. How this works is you pay an annual membership fee – around $80 to $200 a year – in exchange for 10 to 60 percent discounts on service and treatments from participating dentists. To find a savings plan, go to DentalPlans.com (or 888-632-5353) where you can search for plans and participating dentists, as well as get a breakdown of the discounts offered.

Check veterans’ benefits: If you’re a veteran enrolled in the VA health care program or are a beneficiary of the Civilian Health and Medical Program (CHAMPVA), the VA offers a dental insurance program that gives you the option to buy dental insurance through Delta Dental and MetLife at a reduced cost. The VA also provides free dental care to vets who have dental problems resulting from service. To learn more about these options, visit VA.gov/dental or call 877-222-8387.

Shop around: FairHealthConsumer.org and HealthcareBlueBook.com lets you look up the cost of different dental procedures in your area, so you can comparison shop – or ask your regular dentist for a discount.

Try community health centers or dental schools: There are many health centers and clinics that provide low-cost dental care to those in need. And all university dental schools and college dental hygiene programs offer dental care and cleanings for less than half of what you would pay at a dentist’s office. Students who are supervised by their professors provide the care. See ToothWisdom.org to search for a center, clinic or school near you.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

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Have You Checked Your Social Security Statement for Errors?

Dear Savvy Senior,
I’ve heard that Social Security sometimes makes mistakes on our earnings record, which can reduce our monthly retirement benefits. How can I make sure this doesn’t happen to me?
Paranoid Paul

Dear Paul,
Mistakes in the Social Security earnings record are actually fairly common. Your Social Security benefits are based on your highest 35 years of earnings history. So, if your earnings for any particular year are underreported, it will reduce your benefits.

These errors typically occur because your employer either reported your earnings incorrectly or reported your earnings using the wrong name or Social Security number. Or if you got married or divorced and changed your name but did not report the change to Social Security.

Check Your Statement
The best way to keep an eye on your benefits and avoid any possible mistakes is to carefully review your Social Security statement every year. To do this, go to SSA.gov/myaccount and then print your statement out on paper.

If you’re age 60 or older and not yet receiving benefits and don’t have a My Social Security account online, your statement will actually be mailed to you about three months before your birthday.

Your Social Security statement lists your earnings record for each year of employment and estimates the benefits you and your family may receive as a result of those earnings.

Once you get your statement, take some time to verify its accuracy by comparing the earnings listed on your statement with your own tax records or W-2 statements. You have to correct errors within 3 years, 3 months and 15 days following the year of the mistake. If you happen to spot a discrepancy within that time limit, follow these steps.

First, call your nearest Social Security office (see SSA.gov/locator or call 800-772-1213 to get the number) to report the error. Some corrections can be made over the phone, or you may need to schedule an appointment and go in with copies of your W-2 forms or tax returns to prove the mistake, or you can mail it in.

If you suspect a discrepancy but don’t have backup records, the Social Security Administration (SSA) may be able to use your employment information to search its records and correct mistakes. If the SSA can’t locate your records, you’ll need to contact the employer to obtain a copy of your W-2 for the year in question.

Once your earnings record is corrected, Social Security will send you a confirming letter. If you don’t receive the confirmation within three months, contact them again, and double-check the correction by making sure it appears on your Social Security statement.

If corrections aren’t made on your statement start an appeals process (see SSA.gov/pubs/EN-05-10041.pdf).

Other Mistakes
Social Security earnings miscalculations can also happen if there’s a mistake in your current mailing address that the IRS has on file for you. Check your federal tax returns for this possible error, especially if you’ve moved recently.

To correct your address, contact the IRS at 800-829-3676 and ask them to mail you the “Change of Address” form 8822, or print it off at IRS.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f8822.pdf, fill it out and mail it back to the address on the form.

Other factors that can cause mistakes are if your name or date of birth in the SSA records isn’t the same as it appears in the IRS files. So double-check your Social Security statement for these possible mishaps, and if you find an error call the 800-772-1213 and ask for Form SS-5, “Application for a Social Security Card,” and submit it with the correct information. The form can also be downloaded at SSA.gov/forms/ss-5.pdf.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

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How to Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Dear Savvy Senior,
What can you tell me about seasonal affective disorder? I have always hated wintertime, but since I retired and am home a lot more, the dark and cold winter months make me depressed and lethargic.
Fighting the Blues

Dear Fighting,
If you get depressed in the winter but feel better in spring and summer, you may indeed have seasonal affective disorder (or SAD), a wintertime depression that affects roughly 6 percent of Americans.

In most cases, SAD is related to the loss of sunlight in the winter months. Reduced sunlight can upset natural sleep-wake cycles and other circadian rhythms that can affect the body. It can also cause a drop in the brain chemical serotonin, which affects mood, and can increase the levels of the hormone melatonin, which can make you feel more tired and lethargic.

If you think you may have SAD, a trip to your doctor’s office is the best way to diagnose it or you can take a SAD “self-diagnostic” test at the Center for Environmental Therapeutics website at CET.org/self-assessment. In the meantime, here are several treatment options and remedies that can help.

Light therapy: The most effective treatment for SAD is sitting in front of a specialized light therapy box for 15 to 20 minutes a day. Light therapy mimics outdoor light to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. It’s most effective when timed to fit a person’s individual circadian rhythm, which varies widely from person to person depending on whether they’re a night owl or a morning lark. You can calculate the proper time for doing light therapy by taking the circadian rhythm test at CET.org/self-assessment.

The best light therapy lamps provide 10,000 lux of illumination, many times stronger than typical indoor light, and have a diffuser screen that filters out ultraviolet rays and projects downward toward the eyes.

Some top-rated products as rated by Wirecutter.com include the Carex Day-Light Classic Plus Lamp ($115), Verilux HappyLight Deluxe 10,000-Lux Sunshine Simulator ($160), and the Northern Light Technology Boxelite Desk Lamp ($190), all of which are available at Amazon.com.

Cognitive behavioral therapy: Even though SAD is considered to be a biological problem, identifying and changing thought and behavior patterns can help alleviate symptoms too. To help you with this, choose a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy and who has experience in treating SAD. To locate someone in your area, check with the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (FindCBT.org), or the Academy of Cognitive Therapy (AcademyofCT.org).

Antidepressants: Some people with SAD benefit from antidepressant treatment, especially if symptoms are severe. Some proven medications to ask your doctor about include the extended-release version of the antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin XL, Aplenzin), and antidepressants selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (S.S.R.I.s), sertraline (also known as Zoloft) and fluoxetine (also known under the brand name Prozac).

But keep in mind that it may take several weeks to notice full benefits from an antidepressant. In addition, you may have to try different medications before you find one that works well for you and has the fewest side effects.

Lifestyle remedies: Some other things you can do to help alleviate your SAD symptoms include making your environment sunnier and brighter. So, open up your blinds, sit closer to bright windows and get outside as much as can. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help, especially if you spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning. Moderate exercise such as walking, swimming, yoga and even tai chi can also help alleviate SAD symptoms, as can social activities.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

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