Savvy Senior - Who should buy long-term care insurance?

Dear Savvy Senior,

Is there a good rule of thumb on who should buy a long-term care insurance policy? My wife and I have a few assets we’d like to protect, but we hate the idea of paying expensive premiums for a policy we may never use.

— Planning Ahead

Dear Planning,

Mulling over two key factors — your financial situation and health history — will help you decide whether buying a long-term care (LTC) insurance policy is a wise decision for you, your wife or both of you. Today, around 8 million Americans own a policy. Here’s what you should know.

As the cost of LTC (which includes nursing home, assisted living and in-home care) continues to climb, it’s important to know that most people pay for LTC either from personal savings, with Medicaid when their savings are depleted or through a LTC insurance policy. National median average costs for nursing home care today is more than $87,000 a year, while assisted living averages $42,000 a year.

While national statistics show that about 70 percent of Americans 65 and older will need some kind of LTC, most people do not need to purchase a LTC insurance policy.

In fact, according to a recent study at the Boston College Center for Retirement Research, only 19 percent of men and 31 percent of women should actually get one.

The reasons stem from a range of factors, including the fact that relatively few people have enough wealth to protect to make purchasing a policy worthwhile. Seniors with limited financial resources who need LTC turn to Medicaid to pick up the tab after they run out of money.

Another important factor is that most seniors who need LTC need it only for a short period of time: for example, when they’re recovering from surgery. For those people, Medicare covers in-home health care and nursing home stays of 100 days or less following a hospital stay of more than three consecutive days.

So who should consider buying a policy?

LTC insurance policies make the most sense for people who can afford the premiums and who have assets of at least $150,000 or more they want to protect, not counting their home and vehicles.

Another factor to weigh is your personal health and family health history. The two most common reasons seniors need extended long-term care is because of dementia and/or disability. And, almost half of all people who live in nursing homes are 85 years or older. So, what’s your family history for Alzheimer’s, stroke or some other disabling health condition, and do you have a family history of longevity? The U.S. Surgeon General offers a free tool at familyhistory.hhs.gov to help you gather, organize and evaluate your genetic risks.

You also need to factor in gender. Because women live an average of five years longer than men, they are at greater risk of needing extended LTC.

After evaluating your situation, if you’re leaning toward buying a LTC policy, be sure to do your homework. The cost of premiums can vary greatly (ranging anywhere between $1,200 and $8,000 a year for a couple) depending on your age, the insurer and the policy’s provisions. To help you find a policy, get a long-term care insurance specialist who works with a variety of companies. See aaltci.org to locate one. Also shop insurers like Northwestern Mutual and New York Life, who work only with their own agents.

If you want to save money, find out if your state offers a LTC partnership program (see aaltci.org/partnership). Under these programs, if you buy a long-term care policy approved by your state Medicaid agency, you can protect an amount of assets from Medicaid equal to the benefits that your policy pays out.

Send questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org.

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