A Comprehensive Guide to Medicare

American couples retiring this year will spend over $250,000 on their medical care during their golden years, according to Fidelity Investments. That's a lot of money. But if you understand how Medicare works and how to use it properly, you may be able to protect yourself from financial insecurity.

In this clip of The Motley Fool'sIndustry Focus: Healthcarepodcast, analyst Kristine Harjes and contributor Todd Campbell explain Medicare's various "parts," what they cover, and what pitfalls to avoid.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This podcast was recorded on Sept. 14, 2016.

Kristine Harjes:As you mentioned, 65 is when you become eligible for Medicare. So, you have this seven-month window around your birthday month in which you can enroll. Realistically, you probably should enroll right about then, otherwise you face a bit of a risk of your premiums rising, particularly the longer you wait, the longer the premium could go up. And for part B, especially -- we'll talk about how there are different lettered parts to Medicare -- the penalty will continue on your premium for the rest of your life, unless you qualify for certain exceptions, such as if you work past 65, then you might end up not needing to claim it right away in order to avoid the penalty.

Todd Campbell:That's a pretty stiff penalty when you think about it! A 10% penalty forever!

Harjes:Indefinitely, yeah.

Campbell:Just for missing a few months.

Harjes:Let's not talk about B too much before we talk about part A. Todd, do you want to give us the rundown on Medicare part A?

Campbell:As you alluded to, we have various parts of Medicare; they're all responsible for covering different parts of healthcare for recipients. Part A isoriginal Medicare. It's the part that handles inpatient hospitalization. So, you get sick, you go to the hospital, you get admitted, and that's where Medicare will step up and cover that cost. Most Americans qualify for Medicare part A without having to pay a premium.

Harjes:Once you're 65 and up, you will qualify, unless you didn't pay into Social Security for 10 years or more. And we'll talk a little bit more about where all this money comes from and how it's funded later, but essentially, it's funded by the same tax that pays for things like Social Security.

Campbell:Right, you basically have two forms of payment for all of these. Like you said, we'll get into the nuts and bolts of that a little bit further on. But it's either going to come via government, or it's going to come via premiums.

Harjes:Right. So, that's part A. There's also part B, which is quite different from part A. It covers things like doctor visits and your out-patient costs -- that can be things like medical equipment or physical therapy. Also in this bucket would be preventive screenings and testings. Andyou actually will end up paying a monthly premium. This is not completely free. This is where that penalty that we talked about first thing in the show will really matter. Typically, can you pay a monthly premium that's around $100. You can imagine, 10% on top of that, if you were a year late in enrolling, that's pretty significant over your lifetime.

Campbell:It can absolutely add up. If you were new to part B in 2016, you could be paying $120. You could be paying even more than that if you're a high-income earner, because part B premiums, there's a standard rate, and there's also an income adjustment. Yourpremiums could go up into hundreds of dollars, depending on how much income you report.

Harjes:Exactly. Once you've paid your premium,you're not quite done paying to get part B covered, because you have adeductible per year that you have to meet, meaning expenses that come out of your pocket before the plan's coverage kicks in. That is $166 per year. After that, you'll still pay 20% co-insurance.

Campbell:Yeah, I think a lot of people think of Medicare part A and part B as, "I get 100% of my care taken care of." That's not the case. With part A, your first 60 days or so of being in the hospital are covered, but beyond that, you start to contribute to that care on a daily basis. And with part B, like you said, you have not only the premiums, but you have a small deductible, and then you're responsible for that 20% share of the costs.

Harjes:Right. That's part A and part B. There is something that's referred to as part C, but I think it'll make more sense for us to talk first about part D, which is your prescription drug plans that are optional and can be added for a cost. These are administered by private insurers, not just coming out of the normal Medicare pot of part A and part B. Essentially, what happens here is you can pay a certain amount, and after that, your drug costs will be largely covered. There are so many different options out here for part D. If you're eligible, you really want to look at what types of drugs you need, how often, how much you're spending, and compare the plans to make sure you getthe best one for you.

Campbell:Yeah, it's very important for everyone to remember this. Part D plan costs canvary widely. And every one of these plans, because they're run by private companies, they can use drug formularies that reimburse very different amounts depending on the medications that you take. So, when you go to enroll in part D, make sure that you take the time to look through and make sure that any medication that you're on currently is covered in the best tier possible so that your out-of-pocket costs are less, because yes, part D will have premiums, but you'll also be on the hook for some other costs associated with that, including co-insurance and a deductible.

Harjes:Exactly. That was part A, and B, and D, so now it's probably time to talk about part C, which is more commonly known as Medicare Advantage. Todd, do you want to take that one?

Campbell:Yeah. And by the way, you did that right. It's hard to talk about part C if you don't know what part A, B, and D are. Part C is Medicare Advantage. They're plans that are offered by private insurers that oftentimes bundle together and take over the responsibilities of part A, part B, and part D. Sometimes, you won't have to pay any extra premium to get a part C plan. Other times, you will. It's really going to depend on the insurer,the level of coverage, how much co-payments will be, how much your co-insurance will be, etc. The thing to remember about Medicare Advantage, why it even exists, is that Medicare original, we'll call it, part A and part B, they don't cap out your spending. So, theoretically, you could pay the 20% co-insurance in part B forever. And you could pay your share of the hospitalization costs, once you get beyond that 60 days, forever. There's no cap on how much you spend in any given year. Part C plans do cap that spending.

Harjes:Right, exactly, and that's something that's important to a lot of people, to have that safety and the assurance that your spending will be capped. 31% of Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in Medicare Advantage. They can be very different, but in general, it'll cover stuff that Medicare doesn't. You can have hearing, vision, dental. There are a lot of things that aren't covered, surprisingly, by original Medicare that you can find a Medicare Advantage plan to cover.

Campbell:You're right. Hearing aids is a huge one that most of us are probably going to end up needing at some point. And they can cost thousands of dollars, and you have to replace them every so often. And that's not covered by Medicare part A or part B. Part C plans, those Medicare Advantage plans, they can roll in dental coverage, they can roll in vision, all sorts of things. Of course, you'll have to pay a higher premium for those, but it gives you the flexibility to choose what kind of coverage you want.

Harjes:Exactly. If you know that listening to Industry Focus is a priority for the rest of your life, and you might need a hearing aid to do so, then you might want to consider this coverage.

Campbell:There are drawbacks, though, that we should probably touch on really quickly, on the Medicare Advantage plans. While they dogive you more flexibility, and potentially more coverage, and a little bit more protection, most of them are set up as HMOs or PPOs, which means they have limited doctor networks, so you have to stay in the network, whereas if you're with original Medicare part A and part B, those restrictions don't apply. Anyone that takes Medicare, you can go see.

Harjes:Right, that's a good point, too. Andthat reminds me about the star rating system, which I don't think a lot of people know about. Essentially, your Medicare Advantage plans will get a star rating, which is given by the Medicare system itself. It lets you know which plans it thinks are the best.

Campbell:Right, if youGoogleit, you can find out which one is the highest ranked. There are some advantages to being higher ranked for the insurers, so they'll try and get that five-star ranking. It's important to know just howhighly ranked your plan is. I recommend everybody goes out and at least takes a look at that.

Harjes:Exactly. I want to move on, eventually, to some of the stocks in this space, and how investors can use this information. But first, I promised that we would talk about funding. We all, as in the workforce in the United States, pay 1.45% of our earnings into the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, which goes toward Medicare. Employers, meanwhile, pay another 1.45%, so you have a total of 2.9%. As an asterisk there, if you're self-employed, you pay the entire 2.9%. There's a portion of this pool that covers Social Security systems. It's interesting because that tax is actually only levied on the first $118,599 in your earnings for 2016. Interestingly, the Medicare tax is levied on every single penny that you earn. So, that's where this money comes from. Do you have anything to add?

Campbell:They way that they break that out -- this will be interesting for our listeners to know -- the general fund, or tax receipts, that covers the cost of Medicare part A. Part B, the way they break that out is it starts at 75% of the funding, roughly, comes from tax receipts, and 25% comes from the premiums that are charged to the recipients. But, that can climb, obviously, depending on income,because of the premium income adjustment. But, roughly 75-25 to begin.

Harjes:That is interesting. So, let's spin to some stocks that are in the space. I'll start by pitchingHumana. They are one of the biggest Medicare players, they offer plans [in] all 50 states, they've been part of the program for over 30 years. Over 46% of Humana's 14 million members come from individual Medicare Advantage or Medicare part D plans. So, this is one easy way that you can invest in the space.

Campbell:UnitedHealth Group, they are a Goliath. Humana is a Goliath. These are big players in Medicare Advantage and the part D programs, and they're getting bigger every year, because remember, we have 76 million baby boomers,and they're turning 65 at a pace of 10,000 people per day. Anybody who's not opting for original part A and part B is theoretically providing additional revenue to these private insurers.

Kristine Harjes has no position in any stocks mentioned. Todd Campbell has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends UnitedHealth Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.