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Retirement Planning > Social Security

Tiny Social Security COLA to Pinch Seniors as Medicare Costs Surge

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The Social Security Administration’s news that next year’s cost of living adjustment is the lowest ever, 0.3%, is angering older Americans. And that anger is likely to spike next month, when Medicare costs are poised to jump significantly for some seniors.

The 2017 COLA will raise Social Security benefits “by only a few dollars, and any increase will be completely offset by stiff increases in the Medicare Part B premium for most people 65 and over,” said Mary Johnson, a Social Security policy analyst and researcher for The Senior Citizens League, in a statement.

Seniors got no COLA this year. The average retiree will see their monthly Social Security payment rise by $5, to $1,360, in 2017. For a couple, the hike will be $6, to $2,260.

“I just lose and lose and lose and lose,” retiree Millicent Graves, 72, of Williamsburg, Virginia, told the Associated Press.

“I just have to rely more each month on cashing in investments,” explained Graves, a retired veterinary technician, who says Medicare and supplemental insurance costs account for about 33% of her roughly $930 monthly Social Security benefit.

Over the past seven years, COLAs have “flat-lined at unprecedented lows,” according to the Senior Citizens League, and have averaged 1.2% per year—which is less than half the 3% that COLAs averaged from 2000 to 2009. This low growth in benefits “has a significant impact on overall retirement income of anyone who has been retired since that year,” Johnson explains.

“For people retired over the past seven years, monthly benefits in 2016 are today 13% lower than if inflation had been the more typical 3% per year,” she pointed out. “In dollar amounts, that’s $150 per month lower for someone with average benefits.”

Other groups, such as the Insured Retirement Institute (IRI) echoed Johnson’s remarks.

“Unfortunately, for the average retiree this increase will only amount to a few dollars, and it is more than likely that beneficiaries will give it back in the form of higher Medicare Part B premiums, which typically are deducted from Social Security benefits,” said IRI CEO Cathy Weatherford, in a statement.

(Related: 7 Tips to Maximize Social Security Benefits From an Ex-SSA Director)

Why So Low?

Some observers are blaming low gas prices for the limited COLA for 2017, but it’s the overall Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (or CPI-W) that is used in the calculation of benefit increases.

The Senior Citizens League and other groups point out that this index surveys the spending patterns of younger working adults, rather than the goods and services more typical of Americans 62 and older.

For instance, the CPI-W puts more weight on electronics and gasoline prices, which both have fallen over the past two years. Plus, this index gives less weight to healthcare costs and housing, which have seen price hikes over the past two years, and represent the two largest spending categories for older consumers, according to The Senior Citizens League.

If fact, the group’s 2015 survey found that 72% of those polled had a nearly $80 jump in their monthly household costs.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the CPI-W increased 1.2% over the last 12 months, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) grew 1.5% during the same period. (These figures do not reflect seasonal adjustments.)

The bureau says increases in the shelter and gasoline indexes were “the main causes of the rise in the all-items CPI-U. The gasoline index rose 5.8% in September, accounting for more than half of the all-items increase. The shelter index grew 0.4%, which was its largest increase since May.

But BLS data puts healthcare costs way ahead of other goods and services when it comes to 12-month hikes, including shelter.

The prices of medical goods rose 5.2% in the last year, while the costs of healthcare services jumped 4.8%. In contrast, shelter prices moved up 3.4%.

The BLS has another index, the Experimental Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E), which shows that the rate of inflation for those 62 and older has been greater than the rate measured by the CPI-W and other indexes, says the AARP.

But it could take some time and money before this new index is embraced by the U.S. government.

“While the experimental CPI-E reflects the spending of households age 62 and older, it is based on a relatively small sample and is not based on a dedicated survey of the spending patterns of older households,” according to the National Academy of Social Insurance, which released a statement Tuesday on the issue. “To obtain more robust estimates, BLS would need to survey a larger sample of households and survey shopping outlets specifically used by older consumers.”

What’s Next?

Many seniors have premiums for Medicare Part B, which covers outpatient care such as visits to doctors’ offices, automatically taken out of their Social Security payments. While in some years, COLA can cover any hike in premiums, there are times when this isn’t the case.

That’s when a federal “hold harmless” protection kicks in to help about 70% of Social Security recipients, so that their monthly payments are not reduced. It is paid for by increases in premiums for the remaining 30%.

However, this “hold harmless” provision will not apply automatically to these individuals next year, because of the fact that there is a “minimal COLA” in 2017 (rather than no COLA), says Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

“Seniors in Medicare expect their health costs to be affordable and stable, and I’ll be looking at every option in the days ahead to make sure that remains the case,” Wyden said, in a statement.

(Related: Americans ‘Clueless’ About Social Security Benefits: Sen. McCaskill)

Other politicians are likely to get involved as well, given the importance of Social Security and Medicare to many of their constituents.

Who will likely face premium hikes? Close to 3 million new beneficiaries, about 1.5 million beneficiaries whose premiums are not deducted from their Social Security payments and roughly 3 million retirees with higher incomes, who make up 30% of Medicare members.

These individuals could see premiums for Medicare Part B rise by more than $50 a month or more, or by over 22%, according to estimates compiled by Medicare Trustees. And the Part B deductible could go from $166 in 2016 to $204 in 2017, a 23% increase.

Last year, Congress prevented “a drastic increase” in Part B premiums through a provision in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, according to Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

(Part B premiums for about 30% of Medicare beneficiaries still rose by more than 15%, according to the Medicare Trustees.)

In Wednesday’s final debate between the two presidential candidates, the topic could come up as part of the planned discussion of government spending, immigration and the Supreme Court.

“This is huge and this loss of anticipated retirement income compounds every year causing people to spend through retirement savings far more quickly than planned,” Johnson explained. “Over the course of a 25- or 30-year retirement, it reduces anticipated Social Security income by tens of thousands of dollars.”

As the politicians hash out their responses, financial advisors have an opportunity to make a difference, especially for younger generations, according to IRI.

“Given what we know, it will be imperative for Boomers and subsequent generations to develop plans now to ensure they have sufficient savings to supplement Social Security benefits and meet their needs in retirement,” Weatherford explained. “Retirement savers in need of professional assistance should consider consulting a trusted financial advisor who can help them develop their own holistic retirement plan.”

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