Healthcare’s Big Bite Out of Retiree Budgets

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This year, retirees were jolted by the 14.5 percent hike in Medicare’s Part B premium for medical services. It was the second-largest percentage increase in at least 20 years.

The monthly premium, which rose to $170, will drop to $165 in 2023. But medical care is an expensive proposition that consumes a big chunk of many retirees’ income from Social Security, 401(k)s, and other sources.

According to a new analysis of 2018 health care data, typical retirees had 88 percent of their total income left to buy everything else after paying for medical care. And one in 10 retirees with inordinately large health care costs had 63 percent or less left over for living expenses, said Melissa McInerney, Matthew Rutledge, and Sara Ellen King in their study for the Center for Retirement Research.

Interestingly, Medicare does protect against the larger cost burdens that follow health declines. As retirees age or develop chronic physical or medical conditions, the researchers found, the share of income consumed by medical costs doesn’t change very much.

Medicare covers virtually all retirees, and the lion’s share of their out-of-pocket medical expenses are premiums – for Part B, Part D drug coverage, Medigap, or Medicare Advantage insurance plans. The other medical expenses included in this study were cost-sharing and copayments for basic Medicare, prescription drugs, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and visits to the doctor, dentist, and hospital. Long-term care costs were excluded.

The analysis was restricted to people who have signed up for both Medicare and Social Security.

Paying for care puts the most strain on low-income Americans, many of whom rely almost exclusively on Social Security and have few, if any, other income sources. The exception is people with such low incomes that they qualify for Medicaid; they pay only 4 percent of their income for health care.

There’s no reason to think the financial pressures will ease as more of the baby boomers retire and health care costs continue to rise.

“It is understandable why many retirees likely feel that making ends meet is difficult,” the researchers concluded.

To read this study, authored by Melissa McInerney, Matthew Rutledge, and Sara Ellen King, see “How Much Does Health Spending Eat Away at Retirement Income?”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof. 

1 comment

Our original Medicare, Medigap, and Part D plans fully cover all visits to the doctor, hospital, and Tier 1 prescription drugs. Not covered are eyeglasses (which we buy over the counter at our local drug store), Tier 2 prescription drugs (which costs $10/quarter), Tier 3 prescription drugs (which we buy on GoodRx), hearing aids, and dentist. (I have cancer requiring very expensive treatments, so I appreciate all the coverage that Medicare-related healthcare provides me at such a low cost.) We spend an inordinately small amount on those additional uncovered medical costs. We’re ok with this.

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