Column: Why aren’t my chiropractic appointments covered by Medicare?

Editor’s Note: Journalist Philip Moeller is here to provide the answers you need on aging and retirement. His weekly column, “Ask Phil,” aims to help older Americans and their families by answering their health care and financial questions. Phil is the author of the new book, “Get What’s Yours for Medicare,” and co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Send your questions to Phil.

Michael: We were stunned to learn from my chiropractor that upon retiring and moving from my workplace health insurance to Medicare, the monthly chiropractic adjustments that I’ve viewed as a “medical necessity” for keeping crippling sciatica at bay over the last decade will no longer be covered. My chiropractor’s office gave me details on why coverage was denied. But a friend tells me that his chiropractor deals with this issue by performing an “evaluation” at the beginning of each year (that my friend pays for), which results in a treatment plan for periodic, monthly visits (much like mine) that Medicare covers. What should I do?

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Phil Moeller: I wish I had a clear answer for you or could recommend a specific course of action.

Medicare pays for billions of dollars in uncovered medical services every year. Medicare also fails to pay for billions of dollars in covered medical services every year.

In theory, these things do not happen. But of course they do. “Medical necessity” is a governing concept of what Medicare will and won’t cover, but it hardly lends itself to a universally agreed-upon definition or application. And this concept can be especially difficult to apply consistently in therapeutic situations.

From reading the materials you provided, my takeaway is that your chiropractor’s office certainly appears to have based its position on a thorough review of relevant regulations. I do not know about the other chiropractor. However, even if that other office was wrong in its understanding, it’s quite possible that Medicare would honor your friend’s medical claim. If your chiropractor does not feel it’s appropriate to file such a claim, it seems to me you are stuck with either doing the workaround the office suggests, paying for these treatments yourself, perhaps reducing the frequency of care or finding another chiropractor willing to file this claim with Medicare.

If you can convince your chiropractor to file a claim on your behalf and it is rejected, there is a well-established appeal process. However, the “win” rate for claimants is low, and the time frame for resolving appeals is measured in years, not months.

The American Physical Therapy Association may be able to help you with this matter. I often refer people to three consumer nonprofits that specialize in providing free assistance to people with Medicare problems: the State Health Insurance Assistance Program, the Medicare Rights Center and the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

Generally, the State Health Insurance Assistance Program is best at general consumer questions, while the Medicare Rights Center and Center for Medicare Advocacy are more appropriate for addressing the kind of complicated situation you face.

Laura: My husband was not collecting Social Security when he began getting Medicare, and his Part B premiums were $121.80 a month. I understand that this is the rate for people who are not collecting Social Security and having their premiums deducted from their Social Security payments. I’m told it has something to do with the agency’s “hold harmless” rule, which limits Medicare premium increases so that net Social Security payments don’t decline from one year to the next. I understand this. But when he began collecting Social Security last summer, didn’t he join the hold harmless group? I thought his Part B premiums should have dropped to $104.90 a month then.

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We got a letter from Medicare that his 2017 premiums would be $109 a month after this year’s 0.3 percent cost of living adjustment went into effect. This confirmed that my thinking was correct about the $104.90 rate. However, we later got a statement from Social Security that it will be deducting $132 a month for Part B! We next went to our local Social Security office in person where the rep shockingly hadn’t heard about the “hold harmless” rule and instead told us that the $132 was correct without being able to explain why. At this point, I don’t know who else to ask since we’ve already contacted both Medicare and Social Security and haven’t gotten consistent answers.

Phil Moeller: Your understandable confusion is a major reason why I think Medicare and Social Security need to get their heads together, scrap the hold harmless rule and come up with a better way for setting Medicare premiums. I applaud the notion of holding people harmless so that their Social Security payments don’t decline from one year to the next. But the hold harmless rule as it presently exists is simply not equipped to deal with a world of persistently low inflation rates.

First off, simply being held harmless does not mean your husband’s Medicare premiums should have declined to $104.90 a month. That was the hold harmless rate that most enrollees had to pay in 2016, due to there being a zero cost of living adjustment last year.

His hold harmless “set” point is not $104.90 but $121.80, which is what he was paying when he began Social Security. Assuming your income does not trigger high-income surcharges, he will be held harmless for 2017. You can find more gruesome details here.

This means that his Part B premium should be $121.80 plus the amount of his 2017 cost of living adjustment, or COLA. Because the COLA for this year is only 0.3 percent, this means his Part B premium should be no more than $121.80 plus 0.3 percent of his 2016 Social Security benefit. For this to equal $10.20 – the difference between $132 and $121.80, his monthly Social Security benefit in 2016 would need to have been $3,400 a month! This nearly equals the maximum possible Social Security benefit of someone who began claiming benefits last year.

The $109 figure included in your letter from Medicare described the 2017 Part B premium that would be typically paid by a person who was held harmless last year and had been paying $104.90 a month. Again, this group would not include your husband.

I have no idea how Social Security came up with the $132 figure in the statement it sent you. I am guessing this is the Part B premium in 2017 for people who are not held harmless this year. However, Medicare says the number should be $134.

Whatever you wind up paying this year, you are not due any refund for 2016 payments as a result of your husband’s enrollment in Social Security. Part B premiums are set for the entire year each January, and your husband’s premium was accurate as of January of last year.

By now, you may already have passed out on the floor through a combination of shock, confusion and possibly outrage. You have my sympathy. Maybe you can turn to the uninformed Social Security representative for your smelling salts. Good luck with that!

Ron – Wisc.: I turn 65 in April 2017 and have no health issues and take no medications. I plan to enroll in a local health maintenance organization (HMO) Medicare Advantage plan without taking the drug coverage option. My only cost will be the Part B premium required. In the future, would I be able to add the drug coverage option for this same Medicare Advantage plan during annual open enrollment for plan changes? What penalties or restrictions might apply if I choose to add the drug plan option?

Phil Moeller: Most Medicare Advantage HMO plans include bundled-in drug coverage, so you should use the Medicare Plan Finder to see if there is a plan available where you live that will let you add a stand-alone Part D drug plan at a later date. You might need to get a separate stand-alone plan at first, and then you can find an acceptable MAPD (shorthand for Medicare Advantage Prescription Drug) plan and switch to it during your first available Medicare open enrollment period.

There will be a late-enrollment premium penalty for the Part D plan that equals 1 percent a month for each month you are late. With Part D plans averaging about $40 a month, this penalty would cost you slightly less than $5 a month for each year you are late. These are lifetime penalties, so you should do some sample calculations to decide on your best strategy.

Carol – Mass.: My husband died in 1986 at age 34, leaving me with a 4-year-old son. I collected benefits for my son and continued working full time. My son died in 1998. I immediately notified Social Security, and this benefit stopped. Unfortunately, I did not know for quite some time that I had over-collected for my son, because I was making too much money. I had no idea my salary affected this, and it was never explained to me when I went to the Social Security office to begin benefits for him. When the agency told me I owed it several thousand dollars, I contested, and they refused to reconsider the matter — quite rudely I might add. When I turned 66, they began deducting this money from my Social Security payments and said they would last for 10 years. Is it better for me to continue these deductions or to pay what I owe them in full?

Phil Moeller: I am sorry to hear about the tough road you have had to travel.

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In terms of economic theory, I think most experts would say that it would be better to let Social Security continue deducting $72 a month from your benefit payment than to pay them back in full right now. Under the concept known as “present value,” a dollar is worth much more today than it would be in the future, because you could invest this dollar, and inflation will make it worth less in the future. Therefore, saving your current dollars would be the way to go.

Having said this, if for any reason your financial situation today is much better than it will be in the future, it could be better to pay the lump sum and then receive that $72 back every month when times might be leaner.

Melinda – Costa Rica: My husband and I live abroad and are residents of Costa Rica but are U.S. citizens. We receive health coverage through Costa Rica’s national insurance. My husband will be 65 in July 2017 and receives Social Security benefits now. We realize that we are not covered by Medicare while we live outside the U.S., but that he must purchase Part B coverage or face late enrollment penalties. Can my husband delay in applying for either Part A or B Medicare when he is eligible at 65 until, or if, he returns to the U.S. and avoid Part B penalties?

Phil Moeller: I assume your husband is retired. If so, the clock will start ticking on his Medicare enrollment obligations when he turns 65. His initial enrollment period will be seven months long, beginning three months before his 65th birthday month and ending three months after. That will be the longest he can delay getting Part B without incurring lifetime late-enrollment penalties.

Having said this, if you plan to continue living outside the U.S. for several or more years, you should balance the savings of not paying Part B premiums against the cumulative expense of paying higher Part B premiums when you return to the U.S.

The late-enrollment penalty for Part B is 10 percent of your Part B premium for every complete year he is late in enrolling. The Part B premium this year for new enrollees is $134 month for most people, although higher-income enrollees will pay more.

To get a rough idea of the trade-off, let’s assume he gets Part B with a five-year penalty. This would add 50 percent to his Part B premiums. He would be saving five years of premiums by not enrolling, so it would take him 10 years back in the U.S. before the penalty exceeded his premium savings.

Should Congress raise the Medicare and Social Security retirement age? Phil explores that question in his latest piece.