Medicare helps more than 55 million Americans with their health care expenses, with most people age 65 or older qualifying for coverage. With benefits for everything from hospital stays to doctors' visits, Medicare is an essential part of retirement financial planning for older Americans in dealing with one of the largest expenses they bear. Yet there's a huge gap in Medicare coverage that doesn't provide financial assistance for services that an estimated 70% of senior citizens will need at some point during their lives. In order to prepare yourself for those expenses, you'll need to make separate provisions outside Medicare to ensure that you'll have the financial resources necessary to cover the costs of care.
Nursing homes, long-term care, and the Medicare gap
Medicare covers many things, but the coverage it provides for nursing homes and other types of long-term care are extremely limited. Medicare Part A, which covers most inpatient care such as hospital visits, does make a provision for covering the costs of a skilled nursing facility. If you qualify, Medicare will pay 100% of the cost of skilled nursing facility for 20 days, and it will cover all but a $157.50 per day copayment in 2015 for the next 80 days of approved care at such a facility.
However, in order to qualify for those services, you need to have had a qualifying hospital stay of at least three days, and the care you receive at the facility must be connected to the treatment you were getting in your initial hospital visit. Once your 100 days is up, you're responsible for all costs -- and you'll need a break of at least 60 days in a row in order to end your current benefit period and renew your benefits for future coverage.
More importantly, many people in nursing homes aren't receiving skilled nursing services and therefore don't qualify for Medicare benefits at all. If the only kind of care you need is custodial care such as helping you get in and out of bed, bathing, or getting dressed, then Medicare won't cover those costs.
When it comes to home health services, Medicare also has limits. You're entitled to up to 100 home health visits under Medicare Part A following a hospital stay, and Part B also provides certain home health benefits. But to qualify, your doctor has to certify that you're homebound, and you must need skilled nursing care or certain other treatment such as physical therapy, speech-language pathology, or occupational therapy services. Again, Medicare won't cover purely personal care, making seniors responsible for much of their own costs for getting in-home help.
How to bridge the gap
Unfortunately, the costs that Medicare doesn't cover play a part in most retirees' lives at some point during their retirement. According to a study from the Department of Health and Human Services, almost seven out of every 10 Americans turning age 65 will need long-term care at some point in their lives.
Most traditional insurance, including medical and disability insurance, follow Medicare's rules in limiting coverage to those whom are medically necessary and involved skilled, short-term care. Even supplemental Medicare policies typically only cover the $157.50 copayment for covered services and provide nothing for long-term care.
In order to get insurance coverage for long-term care needs, you'll need a specific long-term care insurance policy. These specialized policies cover a wide array of services, ranging from assisted living facilities and nursing homes to home-healthcare and personal care needs. Premiums depend on the age at which you buy insurance, the maximum daily coverage you choose, and the lifetime maximum benefits the policy will provide. In general, the older you are when you obtain long-term care insurance, the higher your annual premiums will be. Moreover, many long-term care policies include what are known as elimination periods, which define initial time periods of three months or longer during which you'll be solely responsible financially for covering costs of care.
In addition, some states provide programs that assist with certain care needs for senior citizens. Nutrition programs deliver meals directly to many retirees' homes, and transportation and personal-care assistance are aimed at making lives a little easier. Those services by themselves won't address many of the major needs people have, but they can nevertheless help bridge some of the coverage gap in Medicare.
Medicare is a vital part of your long-term financial security in retirement, and it covers many different services. But to protect yourself against the needs for nursing and other long-term care, you'll need to turn to alternatives to Medicare to give yourself the peace of mind that you'll be able to cover those extensive costs.