COBRA vs. ACA

Due to the recent presidential election, parts of the Affordable Care Act described below may change. The current rules will likely stay in place through 2017. We’ll provide updates as they occur.

When you leave a job, a key decision you need to make is what to do about health insurance when your current coverage ends. If you’re under age 65 and not yet eligible for Medicare, then your two major options are either COBRA, or policies on health insurance exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

istock_000018475056xsmallConsider the following factors to help you decide.

Cost

A big difference is cost. If you continue your existing coverage under COBRA, you pay 100% of the cost of coverage, plus an additional 2% in administrative costs. COBRA coverage is not eligible for any sort of subsidies to reduce the cost.

Policies sold through health insurance marketplaces generally cost less, especially some of the more “stripped down” policies. Also, as discussed in a previous post, low- and middle-income households may be eligible for a subsidy to further reduce the cost. The amount is based on household size and income. A family of four with less than $97,200 of household income may qualify for a significant subsidy.

Coverage

One benefit of COBRA is that you keep the same coverage. You know that your doctor is already in-network, so you won’t have to change care providers. And, your deductibles and copays remain the same.

COBRA allows former employees to continue comprehensive medical insurance, dental, and vision plans. COBRA does not apply to life insurance or disability benefits. (more…)

Health and Auto Insurance – What’s Covered When You’re Traveling?

iStock_67785693_XSmallBefore traveling, it’s a good idea to figure out what your health insurance covers in case you have to make an unplanned visit to the hospital. Also, if you rent a car while traveling, the rental agency will ask if you want to buy rental car insurance, so it’s good to know whether you need it. Understanding how and where your health and auto insurance extend when out of town is important, especially if you want to avoid being on the hook for a big bill. First things first, though – make sure you travel with your healthcare insurance card for you and your family members, and bring proof of auto coverage.

What different types of healthcare cover?

Emergency careHMO, PPO, HDHP, Medicare and Medicare Advantage healthcare plans cover medical emergencies no matter where you are. Emergency care is defined as medical conditions that require rapid or advanced treatments, such as surgery in a hospital setting. When traveling abroad, you’re still covered for emergency care (except in the case of Medicare and Medicare Advantage), but you may have to pay up front. Your healthcare provider will reimburse you afterward.

Urgent Care – If you need urgent care, HMO, PPO, HDHP, Medicare and Medicare Advantage (in most cases) healthcare plans cover you no matter where you are. This is for an injury or illness that requires immediate attention but is not an emergency, such as a sprained ankle or a severe sore throat that needs to be treated outside your regular doctor’s office hours.

Non-emergency, routine care – This type of care covers everything else. Plans differ on their coverage for non-emergency, routine care.

  • HMO – You have to contact your primary care doctor first and get a referral. There are limits on the coverage when you travel outside of your plan’s network and around the country. Your primary care physician will direct your care. By coordinating through your primary care physician, you ensure that the care you receive is covered by insurance.
  • PPO – Make sure to select doctors and hospitals in your provider’s network to keep costs down. Insurers like Blue Cross have large networks across the country with many doctors and facilities.
  • HDHP paired with an HSA – Like with a PPO, visit doctors and hospitals in your provider’s network to get the best rates and reduce out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Medicare – When traveling in the U.S., you can get the care you need at no extra cost. Medicare (original Medicare) doesn’t cover healthcare when traveling outside the U.S. There are a few exceptions, though, such as if you live in the U.S. but a Canadian hospital is closer to your home. There are Medigap policies that can provide coverage when traveling internationally.
  • Medicare Advantage – Like with the other health plans, you may be subject to higher out of pocket expenses for seeing out-of-network doctors. Also, you may need to obtain prior authorization before you’re treated. Since private healthcare carriers manage Medicare Advantage, your coverage depends on your plan when traveling outside the U.S.

Rental cars

When renting a car, you’ll be asked whether you want to buy insurance coverage for the vehicle. The daily rate may be reasonable, but you don’t want to pay extra for coverage that’s unnecessary.

Primary coverage

  • Comprehensive and liability – If you carry comprehensive and liability coverage on your personal car, this coverage extends to your rental car and should be adequate, unless you’re renting a car worth much more than your personal car. Any gaps not covered by your primary insurance coverage may be covered by your secondary insurance provider, such as your credit card. Keep in mind, though, that this coverage does not extend beyond the U.S., Canada, and in some cases, Mexico. If you’re traveling outside the U.S, your secondary coverage, such as your credit card, becomes your primary.
  • Personal effects coverage – Your homeowner’s, renter’s or condo insurance covers personal items if they’re stolen out of your rental car.
  • Personal accident insurance – If you have personal accident insurance, the coverage extends to your rental car in the event of a crash.

Secondary coverage

Credit cards can provide secondary rental insurance. The car must be rented with a credit card under your name and you must decline full coverage from the rental car company for this coverage to be in effect. If you don’t have personal auto insurance, your secondary credit card coverage becomes your primary. In this case, consider buying the rental car insurance if they offer liability protection because credit cards don’t provide liability insurance.

Here’s what the following credit cards cover:

  • VISA offers rental car coverage on all of its credit cards.
  • Mastercard offers rental car coverage only with their Gold, Platinum, World and World Elite credit cards.
  • American Express offers premium coverage for a small fee, and has options for increased coverage.
  • Discover’s coverage is limited to a few cards (Escape, Motiva, Open Road, and More), and only covers collision costs.

For more information, see Rental Car Insurance: Which Credit Cards Have You Covered.

Your credit card is typically your secondary coverage. However, when traveling abroad, it becomes your primary because most personal auto policies don’t extend coverage beyond the U.S. and Canada. Check with your credit card provider to see if they offer coverage in the country you’re traveling to. If they do, find out what the coverage is, and ask if they charge something to upgrade the coverage, such as a daily rate or flat fee. If your credit card company doesn’t provide coverage in the country you’re traveling to and your personal auto insurance doesn’t extend, then it’s a good idea to buy the insurance the rental car company offers.

The experience of traveling can be a great way to live life to its fullest. However, being aware of what coverage you have and how it extends to the place you’re visiting is important because it can save you money, and more importantly, many headaches.

Student Loan Protection Riders and Retirement Protection Riders

Disability insurance helps protect you by providing income in the event of a disability. This insurance is particularly important because people are much more likely to become disabled than they are to die, which would be covered by life insurance. In fact, according to the Disability Insurance Resource Center, a 32-year-old is 6.5 times more likely to suffer a serious disability lasting 90 days or longer than to die.

In a previous post, we looked at a program designed to help young professionals, and even some students, protect their future earning ability in the event of a disability. There are two other disability benefits that individuals should consider, depending on their specific needs.

Student Loan Protection Rider

Student loan debt now totals $1.2 trillion, and the total student loan debt in the country is now greater than the total credit card debt. Not surprisingly, student loans are now the largest financial concern for many people. One reason for concern is that it’s almost impossible to get rid of student loans in the event of a financial hardship. For recent graduates with significant student loans, these can become an even greater burden in the event of disability.

The student loan protection rider can be added onto a disability insurance policy. With this rider, if the insured becomes disabled, the insurer will pay $500 to $2,000 per month for the student loan payments. Payments are made directly to the loan provider so that the beneficiary will not be over-insured. The rider has the flexibility to be dropped when student loans are paid off and it’s no longer needed.

The student loan protection rider is generally an inexpensive addition to a supplemental disability insurance policy. As medical students and other professionals increasingly graduate with over $100,000 in student loans, this rider can be a significant benefit for young professionals.

Retirement Protection Rider

With the loss of income that results from a serious disability, an individual also loses the ability to save for retirement. The retirement protection rider can be added onto a supplemental disability insurance policy like the student loan protection rider.

With this plan, after a client has been disabled for 180 days, the monthly benefit will be given to a fund where it’s invested as the client or advisor allocates. The benefit received from the insurer is non-taxable income because it’s a disability benefit purchased with after-tax dollars, but any income later earned by the investments would be subject to income tax.

Parting Thoughts

The riders described above are more appropriate for some people than for others. Merriman does not sell insurance, but it’s important that we work with our clients to develop comprehensive financial plans. We are proud to work with our clients and their family members to identify what may be appropriate based on their specific needs and circumstances.

New Professionals Program – Future Income Protection Plan

Disability insurance is a well-known and valuable tool for protecting future income. In most cases, an individual can get insurance that pays up to 60% of her current income if she becomes disabled. This can be especially valuable for high-income professionals like physicians, who would have a difficult time finding work at a comparable salary in the event of a disability.

As valuable as this resource is, traditional disability insurance has a significant gap for a specific type of professional: those who have recently completed or nearly completed their training, but do not yet receive the salary they expect to eventually earn.

New Professionals Program

For new professionals, the ability to earn your future income, or human capital, may be your largest (or only) asset. Also, medical residencies generally involve long hours and low pay – especially relative to what you can earn later. Traditional disability insurance that pays 60% of current income doesn’t accurately reflect the medical resident’s future earning power.

Disability insurance under the new professionals program provides the ability to get a salary based on future income, rather than current income. In fact, current income isn’t considered when determining benefits – it’s based on a formula.

Let’s consider Nicole, a hypothetical fourth-year ER resident. She’s making $60,000 per year and has a group disability policy provided through the hospital that would cover up to 60% of that salary. She purchased a disability insurance policy using the new professionals program, which gives her an additional $6,500 monthly benefit if she becomes disabled. It also continues to provide a partial, residual benefit if she’s able to return to work at lower pay. This policy would cost her $4,698 per year with the level premium option. However, she also has a graded premium option, which costs less at first, but increases slightly each year. This would initially cost her $2,172.

Nicole completes her residency the next year and receives a contract with a $360,000 salary. She already has a disability insurance policy in place with a future increase option (FIO) that can increase the benefit without having to undergo additional medical underwriting. Also, she can choose to continue paying premiums on the graded option, or she can switch to the certainty of a level premium.

Protecting Your Most Valuable Asset

Most insurance providers now offer disability insurance through the new professionals program. It’s available to various medical professionals, as well as CPAs, attorneys, engineers, architects and others. Medical professionals are generally able to enroll in the program as early as their third or fourth year of medical school. The available benefit starts around $2,500 per month and gradually increases throughout the residency to a maximum of $5,000 to $7,500 per month, depending on the specialty. (more…)

Key Benefits Decisions to Make When Joining a New Company

When switching jobs, it can seem overwhelming to review all of the documents related to your new company’s employee benefits. These plans include choices for medical, dental, vision, retirement, life and accidental death and dismemberment, short-term and long-term disability and many other additional benefits that may be useful.

With all of these options to navigate through, combined with the anxiety of starting a new job, it can help to focus on making a few key decisions.

Retirement plan

You don’t want to leave free money on the table, so enroll in your company’s 401(k) plan as soon as you are eligible, and set your contribution percent (deferral rate) to at least the minimum required to receive the full employer match. This may mean contributing 6% to receive the employer match of 3%.

If you don’t start out deferring at a rate above the matching percent, let’s say 3% to 6%, then try to increase your deferral rate by 1% every 6 months to increase your retirement savings. You can also make a plan to increase your contribution rate when you receive any raises.

If you’re given the option between a Traditional (pre-tax) and Roth (after-tax) 401(k), consider your age and income level, and whether you’re already contributing to an outside Roth IRA. The employer match will always be to the Traditional 401(k) portion, so you can decide whether your contributions are pre-tax or after-tax for your portion. If you think your tax rate will be much higher in retirement than it is now, Roth 401(k) contributions make sense. Sometimes splitting your contributions 50/50, where 50% goes into the Traditional portion and 50% goes into the Roth portion, is the perfect medium. This way, you receive a tax deduction for half of your contributions now, while the other half is contributed after taxes and can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

Health care plan

Some companies give you multiple health care plans to choose from, while others give you just one option. These options may include an HMO, PPO, POS, or high-deductible health plan (HDHP) paired with a health savings account (HSA). If you’re deciding between an HMO, PPO or POS, make sure you’re comfortable with the in-network doctors available to you and your family, as well as the level of deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. It doesn’t make sense to choose the least expensive health plan if you can’t afford the deductible.

If it’s available, select the high-deductible health plan paired with an HSA. It can provide the best overall value of any health plan available. If the total of your and your employer’s contributions reach the maximum you can contribute, then you receive a unique tax advantage because payroll taxes, federal income taxes and most state income taxes won’t be deducted from these contributions. They grow tax free, and withdrawals can be made tax free for qualified out-of-pocket medical expenses, including dental and vision. And, unused funds in the account are not forfeited at the end of each year like with a flexible spending account, so you can invest and allow these funds to grow.

More information about the benefits of using an HSA can be found by reading my article, A New Perspective on Health Savings Accounts.

Life insurance and accidental death and dismemberment

It’s a good idea to have life insurance that’s 10 times your income, especially when you have young dependents to provide for. Group plans may not let you go higher than 5 times your income, so acquiring the remaining coverage through an individual term policy may make sense.

Be aware that group life insurance through work is contingent upon your employment at the company, so if you are no longer working there, you may experience a loss of coverage. An individual term policy would avoid this, but may be more expensive than group benefits.

Even though the chance of having an event where accidental death and dismemberment (AD&D) pays out is slim to none, it’s still a worthwhile benefit if it doesn’t cost more than a few dollars a month. Most benefits plans sign you up for it automatically.

Short-term and long-term disability

Usually you’re automatically enrolled in short-term and long-term disability benefits. However, if you’re given the choice, select the option where you can pay these premiums with after-tax dollars, versus pre-tax dollars from your paycheck. These premiums are often less than $25 to $30 each pay period, and are paid pre-tax, meaning not subject to tax. Paying for these premiums after tax permits you to receive benefits tax-free if you ever need to file a claim. Since these premiums are small and have minimal tax consequences, receiving tax-free benefits if you have a claimis substantially more favorable.

Employee stock purchase program

If your employer offers an employee stock purchase program (ESPP) where they allow you to buy their stock at a 10% to 15% discount during stated periods in the year, considering enrolling with up to 10% of your paycheck. To avoid concentrating too much risk in your company, i.e., human capital plus financial capital, it makes sense to sell this stock as soon as possible to pocket the after-tax gain from the discount and any appreciation to help diversify. That 10% to 15% discount is considered compensation and taxed as ordinary income. Additional profit is taxed as short-term or long-term capital gains depending on how long you end up holding the stock.

Other popular benefits like legal aid, group long-term care insurance and identity theft protection can also be valuable benefits, but make sure you aren’t already receiving these benefits through another source. Group long-term care insurance is becoming more common, but it’s worth shopping around to make sure you’re getting a favorable rate. Also, one caution about group long-term care is that the insurance provider doesn’t have to get permission from the state regulators to raise premiums like they do for individual policies.

When evaluating benefits, we recommend contacting an advisor to review your options.

A New Perspective on Health Savings Accounts

iStock_71137267_XSmallEven though they first became available in 2003, health savings accounts (HSAs) paired with high-deductible health plans are becoming more popular and are being offered by more employers. These accounts receive a unique triple-tax advantage, whereby contributions are made pre-tax (federal, most states and payroll taxes), can grow tax free and can be withdrawn tax free for qualified medical expenses at any time. Unspent funds aren’t forfeited at the end of each year like a health flexible spending account, so they can be accumulated and invested during your working years and spent in retirement to cover healthcare expenses.

A recent Fidelity study estimated healthcare costs for couples in retirement is $245,000, and this figure doesn’t even include the cost of long-term care. Rather than drawing down cash reserves or taking retirement account distributions to cover healthcare costs in retirement, why not accumulate and invest the funds in an HSA to spend tax free later?

So what is a high-deductible health plan paired with an HSA?

Similar to other health care plans, where you have an annual deductible that can be anywhere from $250 to $10,000, a high-deductible health plan has an annual deductible of at least $1,300 for an individual and $2,600 for a family. Contributions limits to an HSA for 2016 are $3,350 for an individual and $6,650 for a family, and those 55 or older can contribute an extra $1,000. Many employers contribute the deductible on your behalf and permit you to make contributions to reach the contribution limits. And, maximum out of pocket expenses are $6,550 for individuals and $13,100 for families. Once you reach this maximum, your health insurance provider will cover all remaining costs for the year.

You can’t make contributions to an HSA once you enroll in Medicare. However, if you’re still employed after reaching age 65 and want to stay on your employer’s health plan, you can postpone enrolling in Medicare and continue to contribute to an HSA. Keep in mind that you must enroll in Medicare within eight months after you retire and/or lose group health coverage to avoid paying any penalties.

What can the account be spent on?

The account can be spent tax free on out-of-pocket qualified medical expenses. You can also use an HSA to pay for a portion of your long-term care insurance premiums (based on your age), continuation coverage through COBRA, and Medicare premiums, except Medigap. You can’t use an HSA to pay for regular medical premiums, though, unless you’re unemployed and receiving federal/state unemployment benefits.

Investing an HSA

HSAs often have investment options similar to a 401(k). Some of these plans may carry high expenses, so be mindful of fees when reviewing options.

If not needed for health care costs in retirement, HSA funds can be used after turning age 65 for non-medical expenses; however, withdrawals will be subject to ordinary income tax. Funds withdrawn for non-medical related use before 65 are subject to a 20% penalty plus ordinary income tax. They can also be rolled over to a new employer’s HSA.

A high-deductible health plan paired with an HSA can provide the best overall value of any health insurance option, especially if invested during your working years to cover medical costs in retirement tax free.