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retirement

Retirees: Help Is Here

Aging forces you to make increasingly complex financial decisions.

On my last visit to see my mother, she handed me a certified letter from the state of Maryland. I could see that she was worried. The letter stated that Maryland was ending prescription-drug coverage for Medicare-eligible state retirees. Mom retired from a state job nearly 30 years ago, and because of Maryland's generous retiree health care benefits, she never had to worry about choosing a Medicare Part D prescription-drug plan (or a Medicare supplemental insurance, or medigap, plan). The letter was quick to point out that this decision was made by the former governor, Martin O'Malley, and that the current governor, Larry Hogan, had tried unsuccessfully to scotch the change in the state legislature. (Thanks Guv, I guess.)

That was late June, and although Mom couldn't choose a new plan until open-enrollment season in October, she was already fretting about it. "Don't worry, Mom," I said, assuring her that Kiplinger's writes about this all the time and that I'd help her out.

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So over this past weekend I followed the advice you'll find in Save Money on Medicare and walked through the process of choosing a Part D plan. I went to Medicare.gov's Plan Finder and typed in the 10 prescription drugs she takes regularly and the dosages. I reduced the universe of plans from 25 to 16 by using a couple of additional filters (a limit on the monthly premium and a rating of at least three stars), and then I sorted the plans by overall cost. But because the plan finder reported how much Mom would pay for a 2018 plan, I'll have to wait until October 1, when new plans and prices for 2019 are available, before I can make a decision.

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The Medicare maze. My exercise confirmed something that has bugged me since I started managing my parents' finances six or seven years ago: From Social Security strategies to Medicare options to life insurance and annuitization decisions, retirees have it rough. It seems the older you get, the more complex the decisions get. The cover story on making your retirement stash last as long as you do is just one more example. Fortunately, Kiplinger's has a staff of veteran journalists who have become experts on these topics.

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Our Medicare ace is Kim Lankford, who wrote this month's guide to open enrollment and also writes the Ask Kim column. As it turns out, Kim's dad is also a state of Maryland retiree, and he has been sizing up Part D plans for next year, too. It sounds as if Mr. Lankford has things well under control, and Kim is standing by to help. Kim has also served as an informal adviser to Kiplinger retirees as they navigated the complexities of choosing medigap plans and looked for ways to reduce the high-income surcharge.

As Kim points out, non-computer-savvy seniors have an especially tough time, but they can contact their State Health Insurance Assistance Program for help (go to www.shiptacenter.org or call Medicare at 800-633-4227 for local contacts). And Kim has more advice on sorting out Medicare choices in her online "Ask Kim" columns.

The Medicare decision can be even more complicated if you have Medicare Advantage, which combines medical and drug coverage, because you also need to check to see whether your doctors and the hospitals you like to use are in the plan's network. But Medicare Advantage plans are getting better. A rule change allows plans to offer adult day care, some nonskilled in-home care, and reimbursement for the cost of transportation to and from medical appointments. Many of the plans are making only minor changes for 2019, but expect bigger changes to many plans for 2020.

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