At 61, Ron Hayden figured he would stick with his software development and management career of three decades well past traditional retirement age, enjoying challenging work, a good salary, and solid health insurance.
But then he got laid off in a company reorganization late last year. Not only did his income drop, his health insurance soared to $19,000 a year — for a plan that covers less than his old one.
Now, he is hoping his health – and his consulting income — hold out until he hits Medicare age.
"When you're talking about $19,000 a year over four, you're talking $70,000 to $80,000 — that's a lot," he said.
And that calculation, he knows, doesn't even include inevitable insurance rate hikes, or the rising cost of health care.
"If I had to tap into my retirement to pay for it, it would start to take away from those things we were looking to do," the Cherry Hill man said. "The thing about retirement is my wife and I are healthy. You have to plan for retirement today as if you were going to live into your 90s." he said.
Hayden is among an estimated 41 million Americans born in the second half of the baby boom, generally defined as 1946 to 1964, who are on the cusp of retirement age. Not yet old enough for Medicare and Social Security, yet too old to find new jobs easily and facing more medical problems, they are caught in a vise. Those who have saved for retirement may face dipping into those funds to keep their insurance, compromising their future. Those who haven't saved lack even that option.
"The track was you stay in a job until 65, you retire, you go on Social Security and Medicare, and everything is going to be perfectly aligned for you," said Patrick Keenan, director of policy at Pennsylvania Health Access Network. "But that's not the reality of our current economic situation."
The quiet crisis
The crush of medical expenses builds on a confluence of tough breaks that have left the younger half of the boomer generation woefully underfunded for retirement.
After years of stagnant wages, a national transition from traditional pensions to self-funded plans, and a recession that hit at the pinnacle of their earnings potential, a staggering 40 percent of people between ages 56 and 61 have no retirement account savings to supplement the payments they'll receive from Social Security, according to a 2016 Economic Policy Institute report that used 2013 data. Those who did have retirement savings accounts had a median balance of $17,000 — barely enough to cover half a year's stay in long-term care.
Working longer will help some pad out their savings, but others won't have this option. Researchers estimate that nearly three-quarters of people age 50 to 64 will experience a disability, health setback, or layoff.
"We sometimes call this a quiet crisis, because it's embarrassing to say you don't have enough money," said Karen Ferguson, director of the Pension Rights Center. "You worked a lifetime. You thought you were all right."
Rising health insurance premiums and the need for more care as they face conditions of aging aren't the only added health costs the younger boomers face.
The robust employer-sponsored health plans from the early days of their careers have been supplanted by high-deductible plans, as companies shift a greater burden to employees.
Out-of-pocket spending among people with employer-sponsored health plans rose 66 percent between 2005 and 2015, and more than half of workers now have a deductible of at least $1,000, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The Haydens' new health plan has a monthly premium of $1,400 and an annual deductible of $2,500, a price that is three times higher than what a couple in their 20s would pay for the same coverage.
But the Haydens are better off than many of their peers – simply because this is Ron's first bout of unemployment.
A decade ago, when the stock and housing markets dropped, many lost retirement funds, savings and mortgages. People in their late 40s and up who lost their jobs remained unemployed longer. If they did return to work, they often took jobs with lower pay and worse benefits.
"People in their 50s were probably hardest hit of all the age groups," said Richard Johnson, director of retirement policy program at the Urban Institute. "The recession was not only the job market was lousy, but the stock market collapsed, the housing market collapsed. Older people had more to lose."
Now the litany of expenses continue as time for boomers to recoup runs out.
They may be underwater on mortgages for properties returning to pre-recession values in recent years, still paying college tuition for their children – or even themselves if they sought more training after a job loss.
‘I will never be able to actually retire’
Health-care issues just compound the problem.
A 20-year-old who breaks his ankle and requires several surgeries has decades of his working life to pay off the debt or rebuild his savings account. A 60-year-old in the same situation may not ever be able to fully recover financially, said Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow with the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Tapping into savings means "you've permanently rolled back your retirement and financial status," Pollitz said. "You don't have another 30 years to make that up and put those contributions back."
That's what happened to Karen Stauffer.
The 62-year-old Philadelphia woman, who owns a health-food store in Lahaska, drained her 401(k) years ago to cover medical bills after contracting Lyme disease.
She still spends about $800 a month on her insurance premiums and prescription drugs to treat chronic pain, high blood pressure, and the residual effects of Lyme.
Business has declined at her Bucks County shop, but she has no choice but to keep going.
"I will never be able to afford to actually retire, totally," Stauffer said. "Even if it's only walking around the neighborhood going, 'Do you need anybody to clean up the dog doo in your yard?'"
The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment among people age 65 to 74 to rise by 55 percent between 2014 and 2024, far outpacing the overall workforce growth rate.
"The best way to prepare for retirement is to delay it, to keep working as long as you can," said Johnson, of the Urban Institute. "But not everyone can do that."
Meanwhile, a study published in April in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a correlation between "wealth shocks," such as being laid off, and health complications leading to increased mortality among adults over age 51.
It can be a downward spiral that wrecks even the best-laid plans.
"People say well it's your fault you didn't save enough, you didn't have a plan," Stauffer said. "I had a plan. It didn't work out that way, though."
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