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The Independent Investor: Medicare, Why You Need More Than Part A & B

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Medicare costs jumped 3.4 percent last year. Drug prices gained a whopping 11 percent. Medicare parts A&B does not cover prescriptions and the gap between what it does cover and your out of pocket expenses could break you.

Last week, while walking Titus, our chocolate Lab, I bumped into a fellow dog walker. I'll call him Abe. Abe is retired and on a tight budget. In an effort to save money, he elected not to acquire drug prescription insurance called Medicare Part D.

"After all," he explained, I'm in my late seventies and aside from aspirin and the occasional antibiotic for the flu, I've been drug-free for as far back as I can remember." Until now — Abe has just been diagnosed with diabetes and is required to take self-injected drugs several times a week in his stomach for the illness. That works out to $39.95 a day for the rest of his life.  

It could happen to you when you least expect it and can't afford it. Medicare Part D is offered by private insurance companies that are approved by Medicare. Every plan has what is called a "formulary." A formulary is simply a list of drugs each plan will cover. The insurer will charge you a premium per month and most have an annual deductible you must meet before the insurance kicks in.

You need to do your research because what drugs and how much you pay for it will vary from plan to plan. It's called a "tier" system where some insurers don't carry a specific drug or only the generic version of it. Others may reimburse you differently, depending on what tier your drug (s) of choice falls into. If you are already taking a prescription drug(s) you need to check for the best deal you can get among insurers. There's also the infamous "doughnut hole" that you must consider.

Medicare drug coverage plays a portion of your drug costs and you pay the rest. As your drug costs add up, you may have to pay more and more of the costs (the doughnut hole) up to a certain level ($4,950 in 2017). After that, you pay only 5 percent of your drug cost for the rest of the year and then it starts all over again.

As you might expect, people with higher incomes pay an extra amount every month for Medicare Part D. If you earn $85,000 or less ($170,000 for a couple), you pay whatever basic premium your plan charges. Over that, you could pay as low as $53.50 a month to as much as $294.60 a month, depending on your income level.

In most cases, if you owe this extra amount, Social Security will deduct it from your Social Security check. To determine your 2017 Medicare premiums, Social Security will normally look at your federal income tax return you filed in 2016 (for tax year 2015). If your income has gone down since then, which usually happens when one retires; you can request a new decision from Social Security.

In our next column, we will examine two additional forms of insurance that you should consider: Medigap Insurance Plans and Medicare Advantage. Both can assist you in covering the gap between what Medicare pays for and what you do.

Note: Several weeks of Mr. Schmick's columns in January & February disappeared into the ether on their way to iBerkshires. They are being back posted to the dates on which they should have appeared.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM), managing over $200 million for investors in the Berkshires.  Bill's forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

     

The Independent Investor: All You Need to Know About Medicare

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

More of us are signing up for Medicare every day. And like social security, there are plenty of unanswered questions for those of us who are beginning the process. There are plenty of places to seek answers, but how to separate facts from sales pitches from health insurance brokers is part of the problem. Here is a primer that may help you navigate these muddy waters.

Presidents as far back as Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 toyed with the idea of a government-sponsored health insurance program. Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy both tried and failed to get an act passed. But in 1965, under the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, Medicare was finally passed.

You qualify for Medicare at age 65, or older, if you are a citizen or permanent legal resident who has lived in the U.S. for at least five years.  Here are the qualification rules: You (or your spouse) need to have worked long enough to qualify for Social Security or railroad retirement benefits, or worked as a government employee or retiree who may not have paid into Social Security, but has paid Medicare payroll taxes while working.

In addition, you qualify for Medicare if you are disabled and have received Social Security benefits for at least two years. A disability pension from the Railroad Retirement Board or Lou Gehrig's disease, permanent kidney failure, and a kidney transplant also counts toward Medicare benefits as long as you or your spouse have paid some Social Security taxes over a certain length of time.

Last year, nearly 165 million American workers were contributing to Medicare through payroll taxes and roughly 57 million people are receiving Medicare benefits, with 9.1 million of them disabled.

For those who don't know it, Medicare has two main parts: Medicare Part A, which is hospital insurance that helps pay for inpatient hospital care as well as short-term care in a skilled nursing facility. It will also partially cover in-home care and/or hospice care.

Medicare Part B is medical insurance that helps pay for outpatient care: things like doctor visits, tests, medical equipment, supplies and some home health services. Many preventive health services such as screening for cancer, heart disease and diabetes are free under Part B.

As long as you or your spouse paid Medicare taxes during your working life, you don't have to pay a monthly premium for "A," but you will have to pay some costs like co-payments, co-insurance and hospital deductibles. The Medicare system is based on benefit periods. For example, a hospital stay is a "benefit" that begins on the day you're admitted. It ends when you haven't received any inpatient care for 60 days.

You will need to pay a deductible of $1,316 (in 2017) for every benefit period. You pay nothing after that for up to 60 days, but for every day after that you remain in the hospital, you are charged a co-pay that starts at $329/day.

You do pay a monthly premium for Part B, which is based on your yearly income. For those filing a joint tax return of $170,000 or less ($85,000 or less as an individual) you will pay $134 a month. Your payments increase on a sliding scale with those who are making more than $428,000/year paying the top premium of $428.60/month ($214,000 or more as an individual). In addition, there is a $183 deductible you will pay for Part B in 2017.  After that, you will typically pay 20 percent of the cost of any medical care.

The bottom line here folks is that Medicare, contrary to many reader's impressions, is not free and costs can mount up quickly depending on your health problems. Remember too that there is no yearly limit on how much you might be required to pay. In my next column, I will explore two kinds of insurance that you can buy that will protect you from any gaps between your health care costs and your income.

Note: Several weeks of Mr. Schmick's columns in January & February disappeared into the ether on their way to iBerkshires. They are being back posted to the dates on which they should have appeared.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM), managing over $200 million for investors in the Berkshires.  Bill's forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

 

     

The Independent Investor: A Circus by Any Other Name Is Still a Circus

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

By now you may have heard that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus are set to close in May of this year. That's the third circus in as many years to close their doors. You might say the announcement marks the end of an era stretching back for almost 150 years. I disagree.

The circus will never die. It's been around since the Romans were sticking each other with swords. It is a venue that is constantly changing that I believe will simply continue to evolve. Society has moved on from the need to see blood and guts on the sandy floor of the arena. For the last century and a half, we have been entertained instead by death-defying feats, acrobatics, wild animals and loud music. In today's digital age, where kids (and adults) would rather sit at home and watch television or play internet games, the smell of peanuts and popcorn, intermingled with elephant feces and three rings of lion tamers, human cannonballs and clowns just doesn't cut it.

Over the years, dwindling audiences, rising expenses, competition from other sources, the lack of marketing savvy by owners, and the increasing efforts by animal rights activists have contributed to the dwindling supply of old-time circuses that at one time crisscrossed the country.

The rising cost of attending the circus may have also been an issue. Middle-class families, whose numbers are also shrinking, had long been the bread-and-butter of the industry. In some cities, tickets for a Ringling show could be as high as $125. The cheapest seats, at $25, were still almost twice the price of a movie ticket. Plus everyone expects to buy food and at least one souvenir during a circus event. For a family of five, the costs have become insurmountable.

Despite rising ticket prices, circus costs were also increasing by leaps and bounds. Transportation costs, alone, have doubled over the last five years. The star-system tradition was also adding to the red ink. Year after year, those whose acts brought in the most tickets demanded to be paid accordingly. Billboard names such as Emmitt Kelly, the sad-faced clown, the Flying Wallendas and Gunter-Gabel-Williams, the fearless lion-tamer, took more and more of the profits.

Worst of all was the cost of the animals themselves. At Ringling Brothers, one elephant alone costs $65,000 a year just to maintain. They had 40 of the big guys on the employee list. Add in the cost of other wild animals, plus the mounting lawsuits from animal activists, and you get the picture.

Some say the final straw of "greatest show on Earth" in this increasingly difficult business environment, was their decision last year to drop their elephants from the line-up. Attendance dropped even further as a result. Those who were asked said that without the elephants, a circus was just not the same. That may be true, but last year Cole, as well as the Big Apple Circus, both elephant-heavy big tops, also announced that they will be closing their tent flaps this year.

As the sun sets over the traditional animal-centric circus tent, a new group of modern-day acrobats, jugglers and dancers have taken the viewing public by storm. Led by Cirque du Soleil (the Cirque), a new industry has sprung up. Through marketing, research and innovation, these newcomers have captured the imagination and pocketbooks of an audience that numbers 150 million people in over 300 cities worldwide.

The Cirque realized through market research that what was important to circusgoers were three things: the tent, the clowns and the acrobatic acts — not animals. So they got rid of the most expensive element, the animals, kept the clowns (but swapped their slapstick humor for something more sophisticated), and glamorized the tent. As for the acrobats, they dropped the star system, added artistic flairs they borrowed from Broadway, and included special effects from other traveling acts.

Since then, plenty of imitators have followed in their footsteps. As a result, the present-day circus has evolved into something that is not quite an ordinary circus, but neither is it a classic theater production. What it is though, is successful. In less than 20 years, the Cirque has achieved a level of sales that took Ringling Brothers a century to achieve. The point is that the circus will be around much longer than me or you but like everything in life, it will just be different.

Note: Several weeks of Mr. Schmick's columns in January & February disappeared into the ether on their way to iBerkshires. They are being back posted to the dates on which they should have appeared.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM), managing over $200 million for investors in the Berkshires.  Bill's forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

     

The Independent Investor: When Your Broker Doesn't Want You Anymore

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Across the nation, various financial institutions, affected by the new "fiduciary" rules issued by the Department of Labor, are making some tough decisions. Don't be surprised if your broker informs you they can no longer manage your company's 401 (k) or other defined contribution plan.

This happened to one of our clients just this week. The couples, both self-employed, had used one of the nation's largest brokers to house and manage their money purchase plans at their companies. A money purchase plan, for those who don't know, is like a pension plan where employees make contributions based on a percentage of annual earnings. This is standard stuff along with profit-sharing plans, 401(k) s and the like. Corporations use these plans as fringe benefits to reward and encourage retirement savings for owners, managers and employees.

All of the above are tax-deferred savings plans and as such fall under the Department of Labor's new rule (starting in April of this year). The rule requires financial professionals who give advice on retirement accounts to act as fiduciaries for their clients. This means they must act in their client's best interests ahead of their own financial gain and that of their company's. They will be required to disclose their compensation and any conflicts of interests as well.

In our case, since we are already fiduciaries, we were able to swiftly transfer both the husband and wife's accounts (worth over $1 million each) to our care and expertise without skipping a beat. We expect that as more brokers and insurance companies come to grips with these new responsibilities toward their client base, we will receive more calls like this.

As you might imagine, most financial services firms are not going to be advertising their decisions to dump you and your corporate accounts. Some, however, are upfront about these changes. For example, State Farm Insurance, which has sold investment products through their 12,000 agents since the early 2000s, will no longer use that model. Instead, they will have a self-directed call center that will make information and other resources available to customers, but they will have to make their own decisions regarding investments.

Mega-broker Edward Jones announced that they will limit access to mutual funds for retirement savers in commission accounts as well as reduce investment minimums to comply with the new rules. I have the feeling that more of these kinds of announcements, as well as letters and phone calls to clients, will happen with increasing frequency as the deadline approaches.

For corporate accounts, this couldn't happen at a better time. More and more disgruntled employees, unhappy with the performance and fees of their company's retirement plan, have pursued litigation to recover what they claim are exorbitant fees and poor performing investments. The DOL fiduciary rule gives the corporate manager or owner the opportunity to transfer their tax-deferred retirement accounts to companies that are already fiduciaries and have thrived under the responsibility of putting their client's interests first. That way, they and their employees can be sure that the investments and fees that are charged are always in their best interests.

Note: Several weeks of Mr. Schmick's columns in January & February disappeared into the ether on their way to iBerkshires. They are being back posted to the dates on which they should have appeared.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM), managing over $200 million for investors in the Berkshires.  Bill's forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

 

     

The Independent Investor: Gyms Are Counting on Your New Year's resolution

By Bill Schmick
iBerkshires Columnist

Barbara Schmick tries out her new Peloton machine. While she's likely to keep going, most exercise resolutions fall short.

It's that time of the year again when people like me hate people like you. January is the month when all those good intentions to get healthy and fit translate into a 12 percent bump in health club memberships. If only all those Americans who join gyms this month would stick with it.

Sadly for them (but not for me) all those good intentions dissolve by the end of the first quarter. The health clubs of America get back to normal by March. Actually, 4 percent of new members won't make it past the end of January and 14 percent drop out by the end of February. Well over half of new members will fade by the end of the quarter.

The gym owners have no problem with that. They assume that only 18 percent of new members will hang in there and use the gym regularly. You see, the idea of fitness (as opposed to actually doing it), is extremely popular here in America. We all know that, regardless of our good intentions, the population of unhealthy and overweight Americans grows larger all the time. Over 70 percent of Americans are overweight, according to the latest statistics.

That leaves the fitness industry with a practically inexhaustible pool of potential buyers of their services. Statistics for 2016 indicate that worldwide revenues in the health club industry grew to $81 billion. Over 151 million members visited nearly 187,000 clubs.  As you might expect, the U.S. leads all markets in club count and represents about 55 million memberships. Brazil and Germany are our runner-ups. But health club memberships are also strong in both the Middle East and in the Asia-Pacific region as well.

Some researchers believe that the health & wellness industry will top $1 trillion at some point soon. Of that total, the lion's share of sales will continue to be in the beauty and anti-aging products sales, followed by fitness and exercise and then eating, nutrition and weight-loss sales. Worldwide, the industry is already clocking in at $3.7 trillion and growth is expected to accelerate by 17 percent in the next five years.

But let's get back to trends in fitness. My gym is what you would call a big box facility — lots of equipment for weight training and cardio. It has a couple of personal trainers, locker rooms and showers and that's about it. Membership dues are $10 a month. You can't beat that, especially when you consider I come from Manhattan where yearly memberships can easily cost you $65-$80 a month for comparable amenities.

High-end clubs, like Equinox in New York City, command a multiple of those prices. Unlike my gym, the beautiful people in high-priced facilities lounge around the pool, check their make-up in the club's nutrition center mirror and, on occasion, perspire, but at an acceptable level.

Yet, smaller niche gyms are also gathering a following. These gyms focus on specialty fitness programs that concentrate on a particular style of exercise, piece of equipment (think Pilates), or even a philosophical approach, such as yoga.  

One new twist in this niche market is combining home exercise, while utilizing state-of-the-art internet, and other variables to deliver a customized experience in your living room. This Christmas, as an example, I surprised my wife, who is an avid runner and gym rat, with a subscription plus equipment purchased from a fast-growing, specialty fitness company specializing in spinning.

I reasoned that she needed another cross-sport as an alternative to running. The problem for both of us is that between lifting weights, running, hiking with the dog and other fitness-related activities, we don't have that much spare time available on any given day, thus, a home program that could be done whenever we had the time.

The company, called Peloton, offers an at-home spin class with live instructors accessed via an electronic screen attached to the bike. All classes are recorded in their NYC studio (which Peloton owners call "The Mothership." They also offer an inventory of pre-recorded classes including great simulated bicycle rides through majestic scenery worldwide. Via the internet, the member can socialize with other club members, interact with the trainers, compare notes, and even compete depending upon one's interests.

The membership, spinning bike and accessories were not cheap, but that's what makes me such a great husband. My wife tells me that this company and others like it are growing by leaps and bounds. I don't doubt it.

In any case, even though my gym will be crowded over the next few months, I urge you to join. I am a firm believer in daily exercise and the older you get the more important it becomes. Who knows, maybe we will bump into each other on the elliptical machine and trade stock ideas?

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.

     
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Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM), managing over $200 million for investors in the Berkshires. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of BMM. None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill’s insights.

 

 

 



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