Ask The Experts: Retirement

By Reg Jones

Medicare Part B

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Q. I am retired military. I am 65 years old now. Do I have to pay for Medicare Part B even though no expense now?

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12 questions on VERA

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Q. I am a letter carrier, age 52, started in 1985 and have 28 years of creditable service.

If I understand what I’ve gleaned from the posts here and the Postal Service were to offer me a Voluntary Early Retirement Authority this year,

1.  Would I begin my annuity immediately?

2.  Would I have no reductions in calculations of my annuity? (average high-3 x 1 percent x 28)

3.  Would I receive credit for half of my sick leave and all of my annual leave? (How are these applied?)

4.  Would I receive the special retirement supplement beginning at age 56 (my minimum retirement age), and receive it until I reach age 62?

5. Would I be able to continue carrying my current health and life insurance at non-USPS rates? (I couldn’t find how long these could be carried. Until death?)

6.  Could I begin receiving Social Security as early as age 62?

7. Any withdrawal from my Thrift Savings Plan prior to age 59½ would be penalized 10 percent as per Internal Revenue Service regulations? (Can I continue to contribute to TSP after retirement?)

8. As a FERS annuitant, is there no limit to what I can earn after separation from the Postal Service as it pertains to my annuity payment?

9. At age 56 (my MRA), the special retirement supplement from Social Security would begin and would be subject to yearly income limits. Would supplement payments be reduced by approximately $1 for every $2 I earned above that year’s Social Security income limit?

10. At age 65, I’d be eligible for Medicare parts A and B? (Would this affect my health insurance coverage through Federal Employees Health Benefits?)

11.  Would there be cost-of-living increases at any point for my annuity?

12.  Is there a date during the year that maximizes the benefits of retirement?

Did I get this right, and are there any other things I should know before considering a VERA if it is offered?

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Five-year rule

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Q. I’m thinking about applying for a Transportation Security Administration position in Denver. How many years would I need to work to get health benefit coverage at retirement?

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Eligibility for benefits

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Q. I am 64 with 9.5 years under FERS, but it was split up after 4.7, then a few years later I returned and now have 4.8 years. Could I retire on an immediate retirement and be able to take my Federal Employees Health Benefits along with me? I know if there was an early-out/buyout offer, I could. I was given a service computation date of Feb. 4, 2004.

A. You could retire on an immediate annuity because you are at least age 62 and have at least five years of service. And you could carry your FEHB coverage into retirement if you were enrolled in the program for the five consecutive years before you retire. That break in service doesn’t matter if you were enrolled in the program when you left government and immediately re-enrolled when you returned, and the total of those two enrollment periods equals a minimum of five years.

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Turning down Medicare Part B but taking it later

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Q. I am 65 years old and am employed full time by the federal government. I will continue my federal employment for several years. I am covered under Federal Employees Health Benefits and pay for Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance. If I decline Part B now and decide to take it later, will I be subject to the Medicare Premium penalty?

A. Yes, you can decline Part B while you are still employed without penalty. When you are no longer employed, you’ll have an eight-month window in which to enroll, penalty-free, which begins the first full month after you retire.

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Medicare Part B

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Q. I will be a CSRS retiree soon enrolled on my younger wife’s FEHB family plan. Does it make sense for me to enroll in Medicare part B being on her plan? Will her premiums be affected if I do?

A. Her premiums won’t be affected one way or the other. Whether you should enroll in Medicare Part B is up to you to decide based on your current and projected health needs. Just remember this: If you don’t enroll in Part B and later decide that you want to do that, the cost of those premiums will be 10 percent higher for each full 12-month period you could have enrolled in Part B and didn’t.

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Suspending FEHB

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Q. When I turn 65, I can enroll in Medicare Parts A and B. The other parts do not interest me. At this time, I am enrolled in a Federal Employees Health Benefits plan. I am a veteran who is 60 percent disabled, and the Veterans Affairs Department covers my medical needs at 100 percent plus meds if I use its facility. At age 65, I would like to suspend my FEHB plan and use Medicare Parts A and B plus my VA. Can I suspend my FEHB under this situation?

A. No, you can’t.

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Five-year rule and break in service

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Q. I enrolled in Federal Employees Health Benefits on April 26, 1987. Resigned March 21, 1992. Temporary appointment Aug. 26, 2001, to Oct. 19, 2002. Re-enrolled Nov. 3, 2002. Resigned Sept. 27, 2008. Temporary appointment, not eligible to enroll Dec. 7, 2008, to July 3, 2010.  Re-enrolled July 18, 2010, until present. Had COBRA between enrollments. My human resources department says I should be able to continue health benefits into retirement if I work through June 20. I am planning on retiring in December. I know the Office of Personnel Management has the final say but wanted to know if this response sounds correct.

A. To be eligible to carry your FEHB coverage into retirement, you need to have five consecutive years of coverage. Those periods don’t have to be continuous. They can be broken by times when you weren’t a federal employee or when you weren’t eligible to enroll in the program. What’s important is that you be covered each time when you left and re-enrolled immediately each time that you were eligible to enroll. You need to recheck your employment records to be sure that you met the requirements and that the total time you were covered adds up to at least five years.

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Medicare Part A

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Q. I’ll be 65 this month. I retired from civil service in 2008. I’m working part time as a city employee and still paying into Medicare. My wife is 60 years old, and I want to keep her with my Federal Employees Health Benefits program. Since I qualify for free Part A, do I have to enroll with Medicare for this, and will my FEHB remain primary for my wife and me?

A. Since you are still working, you don’t have to enroll in Medicare Part A. However, I can’t think of a good reason not to do so, even though it will remain secondary to your FEHB plan until you stop working.

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Medicare Part B

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Q. I am retired and have Blue Cross/Blue Shield Basic for my health plan. I will be 65 in May and need to make a decision on whether I should get Part B when I have my current FEHB coverage. If I decide to take Part B, there will be another monthly cost. Is there any FEHB plan that would benefit me to enroll in and also keep the costs down if I decided to take Part B? This is confusing to me.

A. It’s confusing to you because it’s confusing to everyone faced with that decision. Unfortunately, there isn’t any way to make it less confusing. You’ll have to consider your current and anticipated health care needs. Then you’ll need to review the pluses and minuses of your current plan and Medicare Part B to see if there’s anything to be gained by enrolling in Part B. Finally, you’ll need to look at some other FEHB plans with lower premium costs to see if they’ll provide you with what you need and want, while offsetting some of the cost of Part B.

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Medicare Part B

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Q. I am a Bureau of Prisons retiree with GEHA health insurance. Should I enroll in Medicare B? I know I don’t have to enroll in Medicare B, but would like to know the pros and cons of not enrolling. It seems the only entity that would benefit from that enrollment would be GEHA, or whichever health plan I enroll in, as it would automatically be deemed secondary with Medicare Part B as the primary, thereby avoiding paying the full cost of whatever medical procedure I might receive. If I sign up for Medicare B, won’t I be paying twice for the same services? If that is the case, why would I even consider enrolling in Medicare Part B? Am I missing something here?

A. The best place to find the pluses and minuses of enrolling in Medicare Part B will be found at www.opm.gov/health/medicare/index.asp.

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Changes in health insurance cost

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Q. My December federal retirement take-home pay was $1,609.11. My January federal retirement take-home pay was $1.645.66. My February federal retirement take-home pay was $1,511.67. My take-home pay was reduced by $133.99. In my 15 years of retirement pay, I have never seen this much taken for medical at once.  For the past few years, my take-home pay has continued to reduce. Inflation is not keeping up with medical costs. What’s going on?

A. All plans in the Federal Employees Health Benefits program are experience-rated. This means that the premiums in the current year are based on an analysis of the premiums the plan took in versus the expenditures it made to pay enrollee claims. While sometimes a plan’s premiums go down, they often go up. To find out if the change you experienced is the result of increased plan premiums, go to www.opm.gov/healthcare-insurance/healthcare/plan-information/premiums and check the rates for 2012 and 2013.

The only way you can moderate the effects of premium increases is to shop around among the many plans in the FEHB program and find one that meets your needs but has lower rates. One of the benefits of the FEHB program is that you can change plans during any open season.

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Cancel FEHB coverage?

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Q. If I am 100 percent disabled due to a service-connected disability and entitled to free health care with the Veterans Affairs Department for life, does it make sense to cancel the Federal Employees Health Benefits insurance that I have had since I retired in 2004? I am also covered under my wife’s health insurance through her former employer.

A. I can’t tell you if it makes sense. That’s something you’ll have to figure out. Review the benefits you receive from VA and those you and your wife receive both from her employer plan and your FEHB enrollment. Keep in mind that former employer plans can be reduced or terminated, unlike those under the FEHB program. If you decide to continue your FEHB enrollment, you might consider selecting a plan with adequate coverage but low cost.

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FEHB enrollment date

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Q. I am 64 years old and have nine years in CSRS. Four years were 1972 to 1976. At that time, I took my retirement out, then another seven months in 1985-86. I was reinstated in the federal government in February 2008, working for the IRS under seasonal but worked full time. I transferred in September with no break in service, accepting a position for the Defense Department. My service computation date gives me Feb. 4, 2004, under FERS. I signed up for Federal Employees Health Benefits at that point. I want to retire, but I need to take my FEHB with me when I do. What date would I be eligible to use as my retirement date and take with me my FEHB?

A. The law requires that you be enrolled in the FEHB program for the five consecutive years before you retire. Breaks in service won’t have a negative impact if you were enrolled when you left and immediately re-enrolled when you returned to government service. You’ll need to check with your personnel office to see if that was the case for you. If it wasn’t, the five-year period will start over from the date that you re-enrolled.

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Medicare Part B penalty

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Q. I am 68 years old and signed up for Medicare Part A before my 66th birthday. I have not signed up for Part B for several reasons.

1. My husband is 60 years old and we have insurance coverage with Federal Employee Plan Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

2. We are posted out of the country, in the Czech Republic.

3. I have no occasion here to use Medicare or incur its costs.

Health costs are self-paid upfront in full and then partially reimbursed by our insurance company.

I believe individuals are penalized 10 percent per year for not signing up for Medicare when they are 66.

It will have been five years past that stipulation when we return to the U.S. and I am 70. My husband swore an oath of availability for worldwide service when he joined the State Department.

Why will I be penalized up to 50 percent for not acquiring Part B, a service that I don’t need and cannot use?

A. Because you were either enrolled in or covered by a group health plan when you first became eligible to get Medicare Part B, there won’t be any penalty. Under special enrollment period rules, you may enroll during any month that you are covered by a group plan or during the eight-month period that begins the first full month that you are no longer covered under that plan based on current employment. Whether you decide to enroll in Part B or not is up to you. Just check with your plan to find out how your decision will affect your plan benefits.

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65 or 66?

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Q. I have been retired under Social Security disability since 2000. I declined Part B because of federal insurance. My Postal Service disability turned over to regular pension at age 62.  I am now 64. According to new law, I am eligible for regular Social Security at age 66. Will my federal Blue Cross/Blue Shield continue until age 66, or does it end at age 65? And do benefits change at all? Do I then have to apply for Part B at 65, or do I wait to apply at 66? And do I have to pay a penalty for all of those years I didn’t apply while on BC/BS? Everywhere says apply for Part B at age 65, but does that apply even though I am eligible for regular Social Security at age 66?

A. Your Federal Employees Health Benefits program coverage will continue as long as you keep paying the premiums. In your case, I assume that you are doing that through deductions from your annuity. Whether you decide to enroll in Medicare Part B is up to you. You’ll first become eligible for Part B when you reach age 65. The law covering Part B is separate from the one that determines your eligibility for a Social Security benefit.

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FEHB and Tricare

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Q. My husband and I are both military retirees and have had Tricare for over 38 years. When my husband turned 65, he had to sign up for Medicare and take Part B to retain Tricare for Life. He also dropped off of the Federal Employees Health Benefits plan and then retired from his civilian federal government job and I changed to single coverage on FEHB under me (I am still working as a civilian federal employee).

I am considering retiring this year and want to know if I need to add him to my FEHB for him to have access to FEHB in the future if we need that. Do I need to put him on my FEHB next open season to retain this benefit in the future?

A. To retain FEHB coverage, he would need to be covered under your FEHB enrollment when you died. Since you can’t predict when that will happen, it would be wise to change your coverage from self-only to self and family while you are still healthy.

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Medicare

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Q. My sister is a retired police officer living in North Carolina and will be eligible for Medicare in August. How does she apply for Medicare? All of the questions I’ve looked at address retirees who are on Social Security, which she will not be. She will continue with Blue Cross/Blue Shield government health insurance.

A. She should call the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 and talk to one of their benefits specialists. If she isn’t eligible for a Social Security benefit, she won’t be eligible for Medicare Part A. However, she can enroll in Part B at her own expense.

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SF 52

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Q. I have been reassigned to a position in Atlanta from Albuquerque, N.M. This move is permanent. Do I need a SF 52 prepared to change my duty station and locality pay? Do I need a SF 52 to change my taxes and health insurance? This position is considered virtual.

A. All personnel actions must be documented with a Standard Form 52. It will record where you are now, your new duty station and the rate of pay at each. There is no place on the SF 52 to record changes in taxes or health insurance. When your official personnel folder is transferred to your new duty station, whatever you have already designated as your tax deductions and FEHB plan coverage will continue as is. Any change in your tax deductions will have to be made through your new payroll office. Your FEHB enrollment can be changed during the open season, if you want to do that.

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Temporary loss of health coverage

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Q. I am a retired foreign service officer whose spouse is still an active federal employee working for an agency other than the State Department. To save money, we decided to move from one self-and-family policy under my name to separate self-only plans. I opted for a completely different carrier, while my wife chose to stay with the one we had had for six years.

We had not counted, however, on the fact that this year, there would be a nearly two-week gap between the time frame for changes for retirees and for active employees. The end result has been that my self-and-family coverage ended Dec. 31, but my wife’s self-only coverage will only begin with the start of a new pay period Jan. 13. I confirmed with my former carrier that, despite having a record of her new enrollment, there was nothing it could do to continue her coverage without some sort of code or certification from my wife’s agency or the Office of Personnel Management. State essentially confirmed this and added that it would only have been able to modify my wife’s action had she also worked for State. My wife’s agency, meanwhile, seems to have been caught flat-footed by this problem and, after initially pronouncing her out of luck, claims to be researching her situation and that of a few others similarly affected.

This sort of Catch-22 is quite frustrating, not to mention upsetting. Neither my wife nor I saw any information during the open season warning of this potential pitfall much less guidance on how to avoid it. I advised State human resources, when I filed my change, that my wife would drop from my coverage to obtain her own through her agency. She, however, did not do so since her agency’s online enrollment procedure did not seem to allow for that.

Can you please advise as to how this should have been handled and what sort of remedial action (OPM code, certification) is possible? My wife is in good health and could probably make it to the 13th without problem, but her lack of coverage during an emergency is worrying. She has also already had to postpone seeking an elective appointment and been declined insurance coverage for a prescription she rushed to have filled on the 31st. It is hard to believe that the Federal Employees Health Benefits plan regulations would not address such a gap, greater this year than in most, given the number of mixed marriages between active and retired feds.

A. What happened is unfortunate. However, I’m not aware of any action you could take that would change that.

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