Savvy Senior Columns — April 2020

Savvy Senior – April Columns

  1. How to Protect Your Elderly Parents from Coronavirus
  2. How to Get Help from Social Security During the Coronavirus Pandemic
  3. Medicare Expands Telehealth Services to Help Keep Seniors Safe at Home
  4. Beware of Coronavirus Scams
  5. Social Security Offers Lump Sum Payouts to Retirees

How to Protect Your Elderly Parents from Coronavirus

Dear Savvy Senior,
I’m concerned about my 80-year-old mother who’s at high risk for coronavirus. She lives on her own about 100 miles from me, and I’ve been keeping close tabs on her since this whole pandemic started. What tips can you offer long-distance family members?
Concerned Daughter

Dear Concerned,
Because the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions are the most vulnerable to the new coronavirus, following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guideline of social distancing and staying home is critically important.

Here are some additional tips and recommendations from the CDC and public health specialists that can help keep your elderly mother safe and healthy while she’s hunkering down at home until the pandemic passes.

Know and follow the other CDC recommendations: Make sure you and your mom know and practice the CDC recommendations for older adults and those with compromised health conditions. Some of their guidelines – like washing your hands and avoid touching your face – you’re probably already familiar with, but there are many other recommendations and they’re constantly changing. For the complete list visit Coronavirus.gov – click on “Older Adults & Medical Conditions.”

Have supplies on hand: Start by contacting your mom’s healthcare provider to ask about obtaining extra necessary medications to have on hand for a prolonged period of time. If she cannot get extra medications, consider using mail-order for medications so she can avoid going into a pharmacy. Also be sure you have over-the-counter medicines and medical supplies to treat fever and other symptoms.

She should also have enough groceries and household items on hand so that she can stay at home for an extended period of time. If she needs to restock supplies, there’s online grocery delivery options like Amazon Fresh, Instacart, Peapod, Target and Walmart, and a growing number of stores including Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, Dollar General and many other that are offering early dedicated shopping times to vulnerable seniors to reduce their risk of being exposed to the virus.

There are also home delivery meal programs that can help home-bound seniors – see MealsOnWheelsAmerica.org to locate one in your mom’s area. Or, check out companies like Silver Cuisine (SilverCuisine.com) or Mom’s Meals (MomsMeals.com) that deliver nutritious pre-cooked meals to seniors that can be heated up in the microwave.

Use technology: For many seniors, social distancing can also lead to social isolation and loneliness, which is a common problem in the older population. If your mom has a computer, tablet or smartphone, she can stay connected to friends and relatives via videocalls through Skype, Zoom or FaceTime, which is a safe alternative.

If your mom isn’t familiar or comfortable with mainstream technology there are other solutions like the GrandPad (GrandPad.net), which is a simplified 4G tablet designed for seniors 75 and older that allows one-touch videocalls, email and much more.

And for peace of mind, there are also check-in services like Snug (SnugSafe.com) that send free daily check-ins to your mom’s phone to confirm she’s OK.  And, will let you know if she doesn’t respond.

Skip nonessential doctor’s appointments: Most public health experts are also recommending that seniors at risk cancel nonessential doctor’s appointments. If your mom has a condition that she feels should not be put off, see if a telemedicine session, which is now covered by Medicare would be an option.

Talk to caregivers: If your mom uses a home health or home care service, that means a number of different aides may be coming through her door.

Be sure you talk to the agency she uses or her aides about hygiene. They should all be reminded to wash their hands or use hand gel sanitizer frequently. And any equipment they bring into your mom’s home should be wiped down with disinfectant.

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 Get Help from Social Security During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Dear Savvy Senior,
I’ve heard that the Social Security Administration has closed all their offices because of the coronavirus pandemic. How are they accommodating people while they’re closed down?
Recently Retired

Dear Recently,
Yes, that’s correct. The Social Security Administration has closed its 1,200 field offices throughout the country to protect benefit recipients and workers from the coronavirus pandemic. Their offices have been closed since March 17. How long they will be closed is unclear. It will depend on the course of the pandemic.

In the meantime, services will continue to be available online at the SocialSecurity.gov website, and over the phone. You can also rest assured that monthly payments to the more than 69 million Social Security beneficiaries will not be affected in any way.

Here’s a rundown of how you can get help and get answers to your Social Security questions, while their offices are shut down.

Online Help
For any Social Security business you need to conduct, go to SSA.gov/onlineservices. There you can view your latest statement and earnings history, apply for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits online, check the status of an application or appeal, request a replacement Social Security card (in most areas), print a benefit verification letter, and much more – from anywhere and from any of your devices.

Their website also has a wealth of information to answer most of your Social Security questions without having to speak with a representative. For answers to your Social Security questions see their frequently asked questions page at SSA.gov/ask.

Phone Assistance
If you can’t conduct your Social Security business online, check the SSA online field office locator (see SSA.gov/locator) for specific information about how to directly contact your local office. Your local office will be able to provide critical services to help you apply for benefits, answer your questions, and provide other services over the phone.

You can also call the Social Security national toll-free number at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778). This number has many automated service options you can use without waiting to speak with a telephone representative.

If you already have an in-office appointment scheduled, Social Security will call you to handle your appointment over the phone instead. The call may come from a private number and not from a federal line.

Beware of Scams
Be aware that Social Security telephone impersonation scams are growing. These scammers may falsely tell you that there is a problem with your account, that your Social Security number has been suspended because of suspected illegal activity, that you’re owed a cost-of-living benefit increase, or that your monthly benefits will stop because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The caller may also threaten your benefits, suggest you’ll face legal action if you don’t provide information, or pressure you to send money via wire transfers, cash or gift cards. They may even “spoof” your caller ID to make it look like Social Security is actually calling.

If you receive one of these calls, hang up. Social Security rarely contacts anyone by phone unless you have ongoing business with them, and they never threaten you or ask for any form of payment.

For more information on how to get help with Social Security during the coronavirus shutdown, visit SSA.gov/coronavirus.

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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Medicare Expands Telehealth Services to Help Keep Seniors Safe at Home

Dear Savvy Senior,
Does Medicare cover telehealth services? My 71-year-old mother has chronic type 2 diabetes but is very concerned about going to the doctor for fear of exposing herself to coronavirus. What can you tell us?
Avoiding the Doctor

Dear Avoiding,
Yes! Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Medicare recently announced that it will be expanding coverage for telehealth services to help keep vulnerable seniors safe at home. Here’s what you and your mom should know.

Telehealth Services
If you’re not familiar with telehealth or telemedicine services, they are full visits with a health care provider who isn’t at your location using telephone or video technology device – i.e. smartphone, tablet or computer.

Telehealth services allow Medicare beneficiaries to take care of ongoing medical problems as well as new concerns, while following public health advice to stay home during the coronavirus outbreak.

Medicare patients with chronic health conditions now don’t have to postpone a regular follow-up visit with the doctor to keep safe. They can do it via Skype or FaceTime. And people concerned they may have the virus could see their doctor or nurse practitioner virtually to find out how to get tested. Nursing home residents will also be able to have telehealth consultations with their doctors.

If your mom isn’t familiar or comfortable with technology, you or another relative or friend can assist her. You may need to go over to her house to help her do this. Bring your smartphone, tablet or laptop – but remember, don’t visit if you’re feeling sick.

Risk of serious illness from the coronavirus is much greater for older people and those with underlying health problems such as lung conditions, diabetes or heart problems. Many seniors are also managing chronic health issues that put them at heightened risk.

Until recently, telehealth coverage under original Medicare has been limited to beneficiaries only in rural areas, and patients often need to go to specially designated sites for their visits.

The expanded telehealth coverage, which will remain in effect during the coronavirus outbreak, now allows doctors and hospitals to bill Medicare for visits via telemedicine that previously had to take place in person, at a medical office or facility.

If your mom happens to get her Medicare benefits through a private Medicare Advantage plan, they will also be expanding their telehealth services. For coverage details, contact her plan directly.

Other Medicare Coverage
In addition to the expanded telehealth services, Medicare will also be covering all coronavirus testing costs to see your mom has been infected, and medically necessary hospitalizations, so if her doctor recommends that she remain in quarantine at the hospital rather than self-isolating at home, she will not have to pay for these costs.

And if your mom has a Medicare Part D prescription drug plan, it will cover the coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available and will waive prescription refill limits so she can have extra medication on hand during the pandemic.

For more information on how Medicare is covering the coronavirus see Medicare.gov/medicare-coronavirus. And for the latest information on the coronavirus, visit Coronavirus.gov.

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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Beware of Coronavirus Scams

Dear Savvy Senior,
Amid all the troubling coronavirus news, I’ve also read that there are various coronavirus scams going around right now taking advantage of innocent people who are afraid of getting sick or are worried about those that have. What can you tell me about coronavirus scams and what can I do to protect myself?
Scared Senior

Dear Scared,
Unfortunately, coronavirus scams are spreading nearly as fast as the virus itself, and seniors are often the most vulnerable.

These con artists are setting up websites to sell bogus products, and using spoofed phone calls, emails, texts, and social media posts as a ruse to take your money and get your personal information.

The emails and posts may be promoting awareness and prevention tips, and fake information about cases in your community. They also may be asking you to donate to victims, offering advice on unproven treatments, or contain malicious email attachments.

Here are some tips to help you keep the scammers at bay.

Click carefully: Don’t click on coronavirus-related links from sources you don’t know in an email or text message. The same goes for unfamiliar websites. When you click on an email or download a file, you could get a program on your computer that could either use your computer’s internet connection to spread malware or dig into your personal files looking for passwords and other information.

Ignore bogus product offers: Ignore online offers for coronavirus vaccinations or miracle cures. There are currently no vaccines, pills, potions, lotions, lozenges, or over-the-counter products available to treat or cure coronavirus online or in stores. If you see or receive ads touting prevention, treatment, or cure claims for the coronavirus, ignore them because they’re not legitimate.

Beware of CDC spoofing: Be wary of emails, text messages or phone calls claiming to come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and/or the World Health Organization (WHO). These scams could take several forms – such as fake health agency warnings about infections in your local area, vaccine and treatment offers, medical test results, health insurance cancellation, alerts about critical supply shortages, and more.

For the most up-to-date information about the coronavirus, visit CDC.gov/coronavirus.

Beware of fundraising scams: Be wary of emails or phone calls asking you to donate to a charity or crowdfunding campaign for coronavirus victims or for disease research. To verify a charity’s legitimacy use CharityNavigator.org. But, if you’re asked for donations in cash, by prepaid credit card or gift card, or by wiring money, don’t do it because it’s probably a scam.

Beware of stock scams: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is warning people about phone calls and online promotions, including on social media, touting stocks of companies with products that supposedly can prevent, detect or cure coronavirus. Buy those stocks now, they say, and they will soar in price.

But the con artists have already bought the stocks, which typically sell for a dollar or less. As the hype grows and the stock price increases, the con men dump the stock, saddling other investors with big losses. It’s a classic penny-stock fraud called “pump and dump.” Making matters worse: you may not be able to sell your shares if trading is suspended.

When investing in any company, including companies that claim to focus on coronavirus-related products and services, carefully research the investment and keep in mind that investment scam artists often exploit the latest crisis to line their own pockets.

For more tips on how to avoid getting swindled, see the Federal Communications Commission COVID-19 consumer warning and safety tips at FCC.gov/covid-scams.

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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Social Security Offers Lump Sum Payouts to Retirees

Dear Savvy Senior,
In light of the stock market crashing, I’ve heard that Social Security offers a lump-sum payment to new retirees who need some extra cash. I have not yet filed for my retirement benefits and would like to investigate this option. What can you tell me?
Seeking Cash

Dear Seeking,
There is indeed a little-known Social Security claiming strategy that’s been around for many years that can provide retirees a lump-sum benefit, but you need to be past your full retirement age to be eligible, and there are financial drawbacks you need to be aware of too.

First, let’s review the basics. Remember that while workers can begin drawing their Social Security retirement benefits anytime between ages 62 and 70, full retirement age is 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954, but it rises in two-month increments to 67 for those born in 1960 and later. You can find your full retirement age at SSA.gov/pubs/ageincrease.htm.

At full retirement age, you are entitled to 100 percent of your benefits. But if you claim earlier, your benefits will be reduced by 5 to 6.66 percent every year you start before your full retirement age. While if you delay taking your benefits beyond your full retirement age, you’ll get 8 percent more each year until age 70.

Lump Sum Option
If you are past full retirement age, and have not yet filed for your benefits, the Social Security Administration offers a retroactive lump-sum payment that’s worth six months of benefits.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say for example that you were planning to delay taking your Social Security benefits past your full retirement age of 66, but you changed your mind at 66 and six months. You could then claim a lump-sum payment equal to those six months of benefits. So, for instance, if your full retirement age benefit was $2,500 per month, you would be entitled to a $15,000 lump sum payment.

If you decided at age 66 and three months that you wanted to file retroactively, you’d get only three months’ worth of benefits in your lump sum, because SSA rules prohibit you from claiming benefits that pre-date your full retirement age.

Drawbacks
The downside to this strategy is that once you accept a lump-sum payment, you’ll lose the delayed retirement credits you’ve accrued, and your future monthly retirement benefit will be reduced to reflect the amount you already received. It will also affect your future survivor benefit to your spouse or other eligible family members after you die.

You also need to consider Uncle Sam. Depending on your income, Social Security benefits may be taxable, and a lump-sum payment could boost the amount of benefits that are taxed.

The federal government taxes up to 50 percent of Social Security benefits at ordinary income tax rates if your combined income – defined as adjusted gross income plus nontaxable interest income plus half of your Social Security benefits – exceeds $25,000, and up to 85 percent of benefits are taxable if combined income exceeds $34,000. For married couples, the comparable income thresholds for taxing benefits are $32,000 and $44,000.

To help you calculate this, see IRS Publication 915 “Social Security and Equivalent Railroad Retirement Benefits” at IRS.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p915.pdf, or call 800-829-3676 and ask them to mail you a copy.

In addition, if the lump-sum payment of retroactive Social Security benefits boosts your yearly income beyond the $85,000 level, it will increase your future Medicare premiums too. ​SeeMedicare.gov/Pubs/pdf/11579-medicare-costs.pdf for details.

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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