Savvy Seniors: What happens to spouse if health insurance is tied to retiree on Medicare?

Jim Miller explains insurance options for seniors.
BY JIM MILLER Published: August 14, 2012
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DEAR SAVVY SENIOR: My wife, who's 60, is on my health insurance plan through my employer. When I retire in a few months at 65, and go on Medicare, what happens to her? Do we have to purchase private insurance, or is there some kind of Medicare coverage for dependent spouses?

Nearly Retired

DEAR NEARLY: Unfortunately for you and millions of other couples in your position, Medicare does not provide family coverage to younger spouses or dependent children when you qualify for Medicare. Nobody can obtain Medicare benefits before age 65, unless eligible at a younger age because of disability. With that said, here are some options depending on your situation.

Work longer: If possible, you should consider working past age 65 so your wife can continue coverage under your employer health insurance until she becomes eligible for Medicare, or, if that's too long, at least for a few more years.

Check employer options: If your employer provides retiree health benefits, check with the benefits administrator to find out if they offer any options that would allow your wife to continue coverage under their plan. Or, if your wife works, see if she can she switch to health insurance provided by her own employer.

Use COBRA: If you work for a company that has 20 or more employees, once you make the switch to Medicare, your wife could stay with your company insurance plan for at least 18 months (but could last up to 36 months) under a federal law called COBRA. You'll need to sign her up within 60 days after her last day of coverage. You also need to know that COBRA is not cheap. You'll pay the full monthly premium yourself, plus a 2 percent administrative fee.

The other benefit of using COBRA is that once it expires, your wife will then become eligible for HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), which gives her right to buy an individual health insurance policy from a private insurer that can't exclude or limit coverage for pre-existing medical conditions. To learn more about COBRA, go to askebsa.dol.gov or call (866) 444-3272.



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