The problem with giving advice is that you sort of have to know what you’re talking about in order to make a difference in someone else’s life. It’s not a hard and fast rule, though. Many people fake it. They express a noticeable sense of self-confidence and put up strong airs about their superior knowledge. We call such people blowhards, but in fact it should be mentioned that a hefty number of our citizenry here in the U.S. were dazzled by such an approach in the most recent election– 62,979,636 of them to be exact.¹
But with apologies to Oscar Wilde, one can also impress simply by showing a little earnestness.
I learned this myself recently when I unwittingly became an advisor on health insurance to a couple who live in our community. The husband, Billy, is a retired postal worker. We became acquainted by floating on pool noodles in direct proximity to one another over the previous 12 months. This same kind of camaraderie is also formed by men who congregate at doughnut shops every morning in most of your towns. It works the same way at the pool except that there are no carbs, caffeine, or calories ingested. Instead, you have two lazy dudes who pass the time with their belly’s floating up, each pontificating about the status of their pensions or the wait time at the local Jiffy Lube. John Waters, Barry Levinson, or Albert Brooks could have a field day with us.
Billy and his wife Phyllis both turned 65 in the last year and signed up for Medicare Part B. They also wisely kept the health insurance Billy earned by being a postman for 40+ years (the same health plan under which I am also covered as a retired federal employee). But being covered by both Medicare and a second health plan quickly brought unintended stress and confusion into their lives. They weren’t sure whether to stay with their current policy or shop for a new one. And in either case, would they lose all of their current doctors? They felt overwhelmed and confused, and the Open Season health insurance deadline was fast approaching.
In addition to making a call to their eldest daughter, a bright and accomplished accountant, they also sought out a fellow federal retiree who in their eyes knows his stuff. That would be me, your humble blogger.
I’m no blowhard, but I do walk an earnest strut.
Billy, Phyllis, and I had long poolside conversations over a series of days in late October and early November about their many Open Season options. Medicare is now to be their primary insurer, and the policy offered by the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP) will be the secondary. Their previous policy, which they had without interruption for nearly 30 years, had become too expensive in combination with the monthly cost of Part B. So they needed to find a more affordable alternative that is economical, yet still allows them to retain all of their doctors, and offer a seamless coordination with Medicare. Not all plans are alike, so shopping and comparing was crucial. Billy and Phyllis admitted to being intimidated by this process.
In short order I went from being Billy’s wise-cracking noodle mate to that of a helpful consigliere. I also had a laptop that when connected to WiFi in the pool area, allowed us to review plans. They do not own a personal computer and that made their struggle all the morning challenging. The three of us would sit at a deck table under an umbrella, and we talked through all of their concerns.
The more we all talked, however, it also became apparent that Billy’s interest and grasp of health insurance matters took a backseat to Phyllis. Although he was the actual cardholder, Phyllis herself would be making this particular decision. While not wishing to deflate or marginalize Billy, my discussions nevertheless became singular with Phyllis only. A private and personal marital dynamic had exposed itself, but it was my polite duty to acknowledge it and not belabor it. We were all on the same page no matter who was doing the talking.
I’ll spare you the details of their ultimate decision, but suffice to say that it was both flattering and stressful to have them ask me for assistance about something so vitally important. In spite of the fact that I myself won’t be eligible for Medicare for another eight years (very comparable to dog years if you think about it), my quest since taking early retirement to learn as much about Medicare and Social Security as I can came in handy.
In the end, Billy and Phyllis chose a very good health plan that has a much lower monthly premium than their previous one. Because Medicare is now their primary insurer, and payments between it and their secondary will be coordinated, this new plan won’t require them to cough up office co-pays or any yearly deductible. It also includes all of their current doctors (who thankfully also accept Medicare). In the words of a song I helped compose while in college, their new policy “filled their basic needs” and then some.²
The experience was both uplifting and gratifying. The other day I bumped into the two of them, and they happily reported that they received one billing statement that showed everything was being handled as it should be. May that continue!
But now dark clouds are appearing on the horizon for what the Trump administration and a Republican Congress have in mind for “reforming” Medicare and Social Security. Candidate Trump said that these entitlements work well for people, and that it was his desire to keep the current system in place. Let’s hope he stands firm not only to Paul Ryan but his own chosen cabinet officials as well. I know I plan on watching closely.
Oh, and my advice to you? Why, plastics, of course.
Until next time…
¹ Cook Political Report (January 2, 2017)
² The lyrics to the song was one line only, sung both as verse and chorus: “You fill my basic needs.” What we lacked in originality and depth, we more than made up for by acting pithy.