Book review: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Social Security and Medicare

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I didn’t expect to be reading a book like this for at least another decade, let alone writing a review of it.

I’m no less than 12 years away from Social Security and nearly 15 years away from Medicare. I have a lot of zeroes in my SS earnings record, so by the time I start collecting the former, it may barely pay the premiums for the latter. Because of that, I’ve never really paid much attention to the news or the financial analysis of their futures. There’s plenty of time until I’ll be subject to either system, and they may go through dozens of changes before then. Why bother to learn more about them?

Then I got a call from the hospital about my father: he’d just had emergency surgery for an ulcer. He was expected to pull through but there would be a few days’ stay at the hospital followed by a longer stay at a skilled nursing facility for rehabilitation. The hospital’s billing department had a lot of questions about Medicare, supplemental health insurance, and other acronyms.

Over the next few weeks, the claims notifications began showing up in the mail. The cost of the emergency care alone was more than a year of my pension. Dad’s been in the SNF for over two months and I still don’t have their price list, let alone an invoice. Yet although I’ve seen over 20 different financial statements of benefits delivered, nobody has asked Dad to cough up a cent for all the care expended on his behalf. How can this be?!

Although Dad’s making a full physical recovery, I realized that I’d better give myself a fast tutorial on the finances to understand how this was supposed to work. I didn’t want to miss a requirement or a deadline.

“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Social Security and Medicare”  explains both systems. Lita Epstein writes very clear descriptions of how they were originally set up and how they’ve changed over the years. Although the major healthcare legislation of 2010 was being passed as the book went to press, she also analyzes how it’s expected to affect the existing rules.

After describing the Social Security system, the book explains how to maximize your benefits. If you’ve ever been married, let alone paid FICA contributions, then even this aspect of your SS eligibility is not intuitive. By the time you work through the chapters, you’ll have a clear understanding of when you might want to file, whose earnings record to use, and what to do in case of divorce or death.

The book is even more critical for those beneficiaries with complicated situations. I highly recommend working through it if you or a loved one is widowed, coping with disability, contemplating remarriage, or parenting surviving children under the age of 18. I had no idea that these benefits even existed, let alone understood how to qualify for them or how to claim them.

The second half of the book dives into the mysteries of Medicare and all of its supplemental systems. Again it clearly explains the benefits, the qualifications, and the issues. Now I can comprehend what I’m reading on Dad’s Medicare statements (and all the other insurance paperwork) and I understand what needs to be done about it. Better still, I can look down my road a couple of decades for my spouse and I to address the potential gaps in our coverage under Tricare For Life and long-term care insurance.

As usual for “The Complete Idiot’s Guide” franchise, every chapter is broken down into bite-size sidebars and summaries with definitions, acronyms, key points and “the least you need to know”. You may not care about the 1930s politics that went into the creation of Social Security, but the book’s format lets you quickly skip past the boring or complex topics to get to the good stuff. You’ll immediately know when you’ve skimmed too far and need to back up for more reading comprehension.

If you’re in your 40s, especially if your parents are still in your life, then you’ll want to read this book for an appreciation of the challenges they’re facing now… and that we’ll soon be facing. If you’re in your 20s or 30s then you might want to flip through this book to understand the issues confronting the financial future of the programs. Despite the media’s alarming sound bites, Social Security will probably be OK.  You should include its distributions in your retirement planning.

Medicare’s prognosis is more treacherous, but there’s still a few years left for the bureaucracies and the legislators to work through the choices to arrive at a solution. It won’t be easy and it certainly won’t be fast. However, the American government has usually managed to cope with the large, ugly, slow-moving crises that are lurching toward imminent collapse. Medicare appears to fall into this category and should be able to return to fiscal health.

I was worried enough about my Dad’s physical health. I’m glad to learn that he doesn’t have to worry about his financial health.

If you have other resources to share about Social Security & Medicare, please post a comment or fill out the “Contact Me” box– thanks!

Related articles:
Military long term care insurance
Proposed Tricare fee hikes
Retiring on multiple streams of income

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

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