Financial Advice for Retirement, Social Security, IRAs and Estate Planning

How Improved Websites Boost Your Benefits

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Government benefits are complicated. It often is difficult to understand the rules well enough to maximize benefits from Social Security and Medicare. The government agencies know this and in response recently added features to their web sites to make it less painful to learn your benefit options. I have reviewed these features and believe they are likely to make it easier for beneficiaries to understand their options and maximize benefits with the least amount of work.

The most significant changes are at the Social Security web site at www.SocialSecurity.gov. There, you will find more information and tools. Beneficiaries can:

  • Locate their full retirement ages in the schedule of phased increase for the Baby Boomers.
  • Calculate retirement benefits using different assumptions for retirement age and spousal benefits. We have discussed the many options for spousal benefits over the past year. The new calculator enables a user to make more accurate benefit estimates than the old calculator
    and the estimated benefits statement received in the mail each year.
  • Plan retirement. There is a more robust retirement planner.
  • Discover whether they qualify for Social Security retirement benefits.
  • File online to begin retirement benefits.
  • The web site also has the usual frequently-asked questions and detailed explanations of benefits and rules.

The site is structured so that most people can find answers to their questions and do their planning in a short time. SSA estimates that with the web site the time needed to apply for benefits is reduced from 45 minutes to 15 minutes. There also should not be a need for most people to visit a SSA office to apply for benefits.

A key improvement in the benefit calculator is that it links to the Social Security database to use an accurate record of the person’s benefit history. The previous calculator required the user to manually enter the earnings history to receive an accurate estimate. Now, only the most recent years might need to be entered manually. On the Medicare web site later this year information on nursing homes will appear.

The information will include Medicare’s ratings using a five-star rating system, the top rating being five stars. The ratings will be based on government inspection results, staffing data, and quality measures. The information also might note whether a facility provides care for dementia patients or those on ventilators.

Currently the Medicare site provides some nursing home information, such as staffing and quality measures. But it is considered hard to understand the presentation.

Medicare hopes that public presentation of the information and the ratings will cause nursing homes to improve their care. Some observers are concerned that the ratings will be subjective and that too much of the information used to determine the ratings is reported by the nursing homes and not independently verified.

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