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As the First Boomers Turn 65, They Face Choices on Health Care, Retirement

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On Jan. 1, Florida will experience an important milestone: the 65th birthday of Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, who became famous after being profiled as the “first Baby Boomer” in author Landon Jones’s book Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation.

She’ll have lots of company. About 78 million Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964.

According to University of Florida demographer Dr. Stan Smith, an estimated 200,000 Baby Boomers now living in Florida will celebrate their 65th birthday in 2011. Nationally, Boomers will start to turn 65 at a rate of almost 8,000 per day in 2011, a process that will continue through 2039.

So what questions will Boomers face at this milestone birthday?

Do I sign up for Medicare? In the months preceding their 65th birthday, Boomers will receive their Medicare cards for the first time. Unlike Social Security (for Boomers, eligibility for full Social Security retirement benefits begins at 66), each Boomer will be eligible for Medicare at his or her 65th birthday.

But whether you will be automatically enrolled in Medicare depends on whether you are currently receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement pensions. If you’re already receiving benefits from one of these two programs, you’ll be automatically enrolled in Medicare Part A and B at age 65.

When must I enroll in Medicare? This can be a surprisingly complicated question. It’s not as simple as just celebrating your 65th birthday. If you’re not yet receiving benefits through Social Security or the Railroad Retirement program, you’ll have to actively enroll. You’ll have a seven-month period to complete your enrollment that begins three months before your 65th birthday.

Don’t put off a decision. If you don’t enroll in this “initial enrollment period,” you may face an additional charge, called a delayed enrollment penalty, if you don’t enroll in the first year in which you’re eligible.

You can put off enrollment in Medicare without incurring a penalty if you have adequate health coverage (called “creditable coverage”) through your workplace and if you or your spouse work for an employer with more than 20 employees.

Where can I find good information on my Medicare choices? Do you know what Medicare Part A is? Part B? Part D? What’s all this alphabet soup about, and how can I answer my Medicare questions? One great way is to go to the Medicare Rights Center.

You may also want to contact your local SHINE volunteer. Operating under the auspices of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, SHINE’s statewide network of volunteers can help you sort out some of the more complex issues that you may face in navigating Medicare. Contact the Florida Elder Helpline at 1-800-963-5337 (1-800-96 ELDER).

When should I retire? When can I retire? In many ways, these are increasingly complex questions. While the Great Recession forced some Boomers into early (and unwanted) retirement before age 65, a higher percentage of Boomers expect to work past 65 than in previous generations.

One way of setting a tentative retirement date is to use AARP’s newly upgraded retirement calculator. Check back often at the AARP Retirement channel – there are many articles that you may find helpful in setting a course toward a secure retirement.

When’s the party? Some Floridians throw themselves a party when they turn 65 and get that Medicare card. There’s good reason to do so – one AARP volunteer leader says he and his family will save about $9,000 a year on health-care coverage costs now that he’s enrolling in Medicare – so go ahead and celebrate. You’ve earned it!

Other resources

AARP’s “doughnut hole” calculator helps you figure out if, and when, you might fall into the dreaded Medicare Part D coverage gap.

The Medicare Rights Center offers a great resource for answering your questions about Medicare.

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