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8 Healthcare Options For Early Retirees

Author Alvin Yam

There’s been a lot of hype and media attention around pursuing and achieving FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early). But there hasn’t been much focus on a critical aspect of the FIRE journey: how to pay for your healthcare needs and expenses in early retirement.

The US spends more than other rich countries on healthcare per person. Among developed nations in the OECD, America spends over twice as much as the average, shelling out $5,437 per capita. On average, Americans pay up to around $13,000 each year for medical care, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

One financial challenge with early retirement is that you’ll no longer have employer-sponsored health insurance. This likely means you’ll need to be prepared to pay insurance premiums, out-of-pocket costs, and deductibles and potentially pay for unexpected medical expenses.

No wonder planning and navigating the world of healthcare options as an early retiree can be confusing. The earlier you retire, the longer you’ll have to cover healthcare costs out of pocket before government-provided programs like Medicare kick in.  

Here are some healthcare options you can explore as an early retiree.

 

1. ACA Marketplace Plans

The Affordable Care Act, or the ACA Marketplace (Obamacare), is an excellent place to start. The ACA allows individuals, families, and small businesses to explore and purchase health insurance plans. The cost of these plans can vary widely based on factors such as your age, location, and income, as well as the plan’s specific benefits and coverage levels.

You’ll want to study and understand these plans’ details, including their benefits and compliance standards. You’ll also want to consider the impact on your budget when choosing one strategy over another. Here are some typical costs:

  • For an unsubsidized 50-year-old, the average Silver plan rates in 2023 ranged from around $600 to 800 per month, depending on your zip code and tobacco usage.  
  • According to health insurance, 2023 deductibles for Silver plans under the ACA average around $4,500 for individuals. This amount must be paid before the plan pays its designated share of covered costs for the year, like 70% for Silver.
  • Other potential expenses include copays for doctor visits ($50 to $75 on average) and prescription drugs, depending on the medication tier.
  • The total annual costs for an ACA Silver plan, including premiums and potential out-of-pocket expenses, exceed $1,000 per month on average for a 50-year-old enrollee.

 

2. Spousal or Domestic Partner Coverage 

If you’re married or in a domestic partnership where one person is still employed, taking advantage of being added as a dependent on a spouse or partner’s employer-sponsored health insurance is an ideal lower-cost way to cover your health care costs.

If you can be added to your spouse’s or domestic partner’s plan, this will provide you with continued coverage and is likely a more cost-effective solution until your Medicare benefits begin.

You’ll want to understand the specific eligibility rules thoroughly. Many plans only permit covering spouses not actively engaged in work until a certain age cutoff. Know the plan’s specifics, such as cost-sharing responsibilities like premium portions, out-of-pocket limits, and coverage networks.

Of course, if your partner decides to retire and ends employment, both of your coverages will end.

 

3. Short-Term Medical Plans

Short-term, limited-duration insurance (STLDI) plans are exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) essential benefit coverage requirements and prohibitions on medical underwriting. These health insurance plans provide coverage for a specific period, typically one year or less. 

These plans are typically much cheaper than traditional health insurance, around 50% to 80% cheaper than ACA exchange plans. Still, they don’t have to cover pre-existing conditions or the ten essential health benefits required by the ACA, such as preventive care and mental health services. Since these plans are not ACA-compliant individual market coverage, they have more limitations, such as having fewer benefits, caps on coverage amounts, and needing medical underwriting for pre-existing conditions. 

Typical plans offer initial coverage periods of less than twelve months, which can then be renewed. Here are some key areas to be aware of:

  • These plans typically exclude coverage for prescription drugs, maternity care, or hospitalizations from pre-existing conditions.
  • A rule proposed by the Biden administration in July 2023 would significantly limit the length of STLDI plans. If finalized, the rule would limit the initial term of STLDI policies to three months. Though the rule would allow policy renewal, the total duration of a plan would be limited to four months, and a buyer wouldn’t be allowed to purchase another short-term plan from the same insurer within 12 months of their initial policy effective date.

 

4. Health Savings Accounts (HSA) 

savings accounts (HSAs) allow people with high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) to contribute pre-tax funds to savings accounts to cover qualified medical costs. They offer triple tax savings: You can contribute pre-tax dollars, pay no taxes on earnings, and withdraw the money tax-free now or in retirement to pay for qualified medical expenses. If you’re planning early retirement and are still eligible to contribute to an HSA, you should maximize your annual contributions to take advantage of these tax-advantaged benefits.

If you are no longer covered under a qualifying plan, you won’t be able to continue making contributions to your HSA. However, you can still hold the account, and your previous contributions can continue to grow tax-free. 

HSAs can be an excellent tool for an early retiree when it comes to paying medical expenses because: 

  1. HSA contributions can be made pre-tax through payroll deductions to lower your taxable income.
  2. Money in your HSA grows tax-deferred and can be invested in ETFs and funds, similar to an IRA.
  3. Unlike Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA), HSA balances roll over from year to year and can be invested for continued growth. 
  4. Withdrawals remain nontaxable for eligible expenses like deductibles, prescriptions, dental care, and vision. 
  5. Early retirees who previously utilized HSAs through employment may continue contributing up to the annual limit. The 2024 individual limit is $4,150, and if you’re 55 and older, you can contribute an additional $1,000 as a catch-up contribution. $8,300 is the 2024 limit for family coverage.
  6. Contributions are tax-deductible, and investment earnings accrue without taxes. The best part is that account holders maintain access to funds indefinitely.
  7. Your HSA can be an active supplement and other plans to pay for your ongoing healthcare needs.

Remember that withdrawals from an HSA for nonqualified medical expenses are considered taxable income after age 65. Before that, non-medical withdrawals from an HSA are subject to income taxes and an additional 20% penalty.

 

5. COBRA Continuation Coverage

The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA, requires employers to allow employees and their covered dependents to continue group health insurance when they leave their employer temporarily.

If you’re retiring early and leave your job before Medicare eligibility, COBRA lets you maintain your existing employer plan as a bridge. The maximum coverage period is typically 18 months from the qualifying date. However, COBRA is also one of the most costly healthcare options. You’ll pay the total premium, including the employer and employee shares, plus a 2% administrative fee. 

Premiums averaging $1,564 monthly or more are typical for a family plan. So, even though COBRA can provide a seamless transition, the full-premium structure makes it an unattractive solution for the long term.

 

6. State Specific Options

A few states have programs tailored to providing affordable healthcare before Medicare eligibility. Coverage is typically extended to former state government employees, public school system workers, and other public servants.

For example, in California, the CalPERS health insurance program allows people retiring with 10-plus years of public service under 65 to purchase plans at group rates. Over 365,000 Californians are enrolled. New York’s retiree program insures over 220,000 former state and municipal employees and dependents under 65. 

Eligibility rules include holding a pension from the state and meeting minimum service period requirements. The key benefit is that premium costs are often much lower than comparable private individual policies. Some other states, like Pennsylvania, offer programs on a more limited basis. 

If you’re a state government employee, you can contact your public retirement system offices or state health departments to see if you’re eligible for retiree coverage options. 

 

7. Membership Based Group Health Plans

A lesser-known option for early retirees seeking affordable care is membership in a health-sharing ministry (HSM). Unlike traditional insurance, HSMs are non-profit cost-sharing platforms where members voluntarily contribute monthly funds into a collective escrow account. 

HSMs help cover members’ medical bills based on established sharing guidelines through this pooled escrow. This usually includes primary care, preventative services, and chronic condition management. But they’ll typically exclude pre-existing illnesses. 

Keep in mind that HSMs do not guarantee payment for any medical costs. Members also agree to live according to organization values, sometimes requiring a faith-based statement of adherence. You’ll also want to carefully research HSM coverage details, cost-sharing eligibility periods, unpaid liability risks if funds run dry, and other membership criteria. Some plans may impose waiting periods before accessing cost-share funds as a new joiner.

 

8. Barista FIRE: Part-Time Work for Healthcare

An emerging solution in covering your health care expenses as an early retiree is known as Barista FIRE. 

Barista FIRE involves taking a part-time, low-stress job not for income but primarily for the healthcare benefits. Some popular options include jobs at coffee shops, bookstores, pharmacies, and employers that hire retirees on a limited or part-time basis. 

The advantages are that working ten to twenty hours per week allows you to secure employer-sponsored health coverage for a reasonable premium share. 

Barista FIRE can allow you to set up tailored working arrangements to get healthcare access. Plus, it still lets you preserve larger chunks of time for adventures, hobbies, and family versus full-time jobs. However, drawbacks include less flexibility than full retirement and, obviously, having some work obligations. 

 

Prioritize Preventive Care and Final Thoughts 

One of the best ways to plan for your health care is to prioritize preventive care. This isn’t just about staying healthy; it’s also intelligent financial planning. That’s because a substantial potential benefit of preventive care is its potential to reduce your overall healthcare expenses over time. 

Identifying health issues early on can help avoid more costly medical needs, such as hospitalizations, surgeries, and long-term medications. 

Some steps you can take now to prioritize preventative care include screenings, vaccinations, routine check-ups, and other recommended preventive services to promote your overall physical health. 

Planning and working towards early retirement can be exciting. But like planning other vital aspects of your life, such as your investments and retirement savings, you’ll also need to have a comprehensive plan for covering your health care. By removing the significant financial uncertainties, you can focus on enjoying your retirement lifestyle, knowing that your medical and health care plans are fully covered.

 

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1 thought on “8 Healthcare Options For Early Retirees”

  1. # 2 is a great idea if you are married. However, if you’re not married and just want to add someone to your work health plan as a domestic partner you will receive a 1099 for the amount that your employer pays toward your partners coverage. I inquired about this and my employer informed me that I will receive a 1099 for $16,000 which is the difference to upgrade from a single to family plan. That equates to a 6 or 7000 tax bill for me. It still might be better than the ACA but still a big hit.

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