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Social Security Financial Outlook Report Forecasts Trust Fund Depletion

By Hook Law Center

Each year, the Social Security Board of Trustees releases its yearly report on the long-term financial outlook of the Social Security Trust Funds. The report includes projections for when those trust funds will be depleted.

Social Security holds reserves in two trust funds: one for Old-Age and Survivors Insurance, and another for Disability Insurance. Both of these programs are funded by payroll taxes. When tax revenue exceeds benefit payouts, the trust funds grow; when payouts exceed revenues, they shrink.

According to the Board’s recently-released report, the Disability Insurance trust fund is projected to be fully depleted in 2016. At that point, ongoing revenues are projected to pay for just 80 percent of scheduled benefits.

The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance trust fund is in somewhat better shape. It is projected to be depleted in 2033, the report said, at which time revenues will pay 77 percent of benefits.

These figures are based on the government’s best estimates for the variables involved, including economic and population forecasts. Congress will presumably act before allowing programs on which so many Americans depend to suffer such severe budget shortfalls. However, the apparent lack of action on Capitol Hill despite the fact that the disability trust fund’s projected depletion is just three years away is troubling in itself. If the economy’s slow recovery does not pick up or if the sharp recent growth in disability beneficiaries continues, the Board’s estimates might in fact turn out to be optimistic.

At Hook Law Center, we advocate for a robust Social Security system that remains solvent far into the future. Our estate planning attorneys know that your Social Security benefits are a key part of your financial security.

Posted on Monday, July 22nd, 2013. Filed under Estate Planning, Long-Term Care, Medicaid.

VA Initiative Promotes the Use of Fully Developed Claims

By Hook Law Center

The Department of Veterans Affairs has partnered with two private veterans service organizations to promote the use of fully-developed claims by new benefits applicants.

A fully-developed claim is an application for benefits in which all available medical records and other evidence to support the claim is submitted at the time of the initial filing. The veteran certifies upon filing that he or she has no additional evidence to submit. The VA says that it is able to process a fully- developed claim in half the time required for a traditionally-filed claim.

Because private veterans service organizations assist many veterans with their claims, the VA is partnering with two of them – the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans – to steer applicants toward this more efficient process.

The initiative is part of the VA’s plan to eliminate the current massive backlog of claims in 2015 and, thereafter, process new claims within 125 days. The wait for new applicants in major urban areas averages more than 18 months in some cases.

In April 2013, the VA announced that it would expedite decisions on claims that are more than one year old. That plan involves issuing provisional decisions, which are eligible to be revised following the submission of additional evidence or appealed for a period of one year.

And on May 15, 2013, the VA announced that claims processors in its 56 regional benefits offices were required to work overtime for the remainder of fiscal year 2013.

These recent efforts, combined with the VA’s transition to computerized claims processing, should bring some much-needed relief to veterans awaiting the benefits they deserve.

Posted on Monday, July 15th, 2013. Filed under Veterans' Benefits.

What is Medicare Advantage?

By Hook Law Center

Medicare Advantage is an alternative to regular Medicare created by Congress in an attempt to cut costs in 1997. It is a managed care plan administered by a private provider instead of state governments. It has certain pros and cons when compared with regular Medicare. Read on to learn about Medicare Advantage and see if it is right for you.

Medicare Advantage patients are generally subject to a small copayment whenever they see a doctor, after which the visit is completely covered. This is in contrast to having to pay a deductible and then coinsurance – typically 20 percent – which is usually the case under regular Medicare. This generally eliminates the need for a supplemental Medigap policy.

Another attractive feature of Medicare Advantage plans is that they usually cover products and services not covered by regular Medicare, such as prescription drugs and custodial care. Some also cover hearing and vision care, gym memberships, and other services.

These perks do not come without a cost. The primary method by which Medicare Advantage plan providers reduce expenses is limiting the doctors and other providers that a patient can see to a particular network. If a patient voluntarily sees out-of-network providers, they must pay the full cost. However, if a patient’s in-network physician orders medical services not offered by any in-network provider, the Medicare Advantage plan is required by law to pay for those services at an out-of-network provider as long as those services are normally covered by Medicare.

Another cost-cutting measure is to prohibit patients from seeing specialists on their own; patients must be referred to specialists by their primary care physicians. However, plan administrators strongly discourage physicians from referring patients to specialists unless it is absolutely necessary.

These are the primary differences between regular Medicare and Medicare Advantage. If you need to reduce your medical costs and do not mind having to see only in-network health care providers, Medicare Advantage may be right for you.

Posted on Wednesday, June 26th, 2013. Filed under Medicaid.

Retirement Planning Falls Into Five Phases

By Hook Law Center

Retirement planning may be broken down into five phases. Each phase has its own goals and presents its own challenges. Read through to understand proper retirement planning as a whole, decide which phase you are currently in, and then take careful consideration of the tips for that phase.

Phase 1: Accumulation

This phase may begin as early as your first job, or at least your first full-time job. If your employer offers a retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b), sign up for it right away. Because the accumulation phase lasts a long time, it can be tempting to postpone retirement account contributions. But time works in your favor to compound investment proceeds and grow your nest egg.

Does your employer offer contribution matching? If so, you should make every effort to contribute the amount required to maximize this matching. Otherwise, you are leaving money on the table. Beyond that, try to raise your contributions as close as possible to the legal maximum. For 2013, that is $17,500 for most workers.

Phase II: Pre-Retirement

This phase begins about 15 years before retirement, or around the age of 50. Speak with a benefits specialist or a financial advisor to understand how you will convert your savings into an income stream. Now that you are getting closer to retirement age, are your savings invested in volatile assets? Is it time to begin to adopt a more conservative mix? Learn more about the Social Security and Medicare options available, and consider whether to purchase long-term care insurance now, while your premiums may still be low.

Phase III: Early Retirement

This phase lasts from the beginning of retirement through age 70 and entails three tasks. First you must assess how well savings are working for you. Consider whether you need to adjust your investment strategy and/or living expenses. Next, with the help of a financial advisor, make new projections of income and expenses. Professionals recommend projecting cash flow to age 100 to be safe. Finally, take into account minimum distribution requirements, which begin at age 70 regardless of whether you have retired.

Phase IV: Mid-Retirement

Phase IV begins at age 70 and lasts for as long as you are high-functioning and able-bodied. At this point, you should plan and discuss with your family a desired course of action should your health deteriorate. The loss of abilities or mental clarity often happen gradually over time. It may be difficult, but you should discuss with your loved ones what will happen if you lose your ability for self-care.

Phase V: Late Retirement

At some point, everyone’s health takes a turn for the worse and recovery becomes unlikely. Self-care becomes impossible. No one knows when this time will come, which can delay action. But if you put forth the required effort in the previous phases, this transition can go smoothly and in fact be life-affirming.

Posted on Thursday, June 13th, 2013. Filed under Estate Planning.

Steps to Take in Resolving a Dispute with a Nursing Home

By Hook Law Center

Disputes between nursing homes and residents’ families can arise over a number of topics. The quality of care and food, adequate staffing levels for proper assistance, and opportunities for occupational therapy are all possible points of conflict.

If you never have an issue with the care your loved one receives in a nursing home, you are one of the lucky few. If, on the other hand, you have a concern that must be addressed, you may be unsure how to proceed.

The following list explains actions you may take in making your concerns known and getting the level of care you expect for your family member. Significant and pervasive issues – and those involving injury or suffering – often are best handled with the assistance of an experienced elder law attorney. Fortunately, many issues are easily resolved with simple communication.

In all cases, keep careful written records of the observations you made that led to your concerns and your communications with facility staff, including their names. And at all stages, make it known what attempts you have already made to resolve the matter.

1) Talk to staff and explain to them what concerns you and what you expect of them and the facility. Avoid using an accusatory manner.

2) Talk to a supervisor. Again, explain the problem you are having and how you want it resolved.

3) Hold a meeting with nursing home personnel, including a supervisor. If you have regular care planning meetings, that is a good time to raise your concerns. Otherwise, you may request a special meeting.

4) Contact the ombudsman assigned to the nursing home or, if the issue constitutes a regulatory violation, contact your state licensing agency.

5) Hire a lawyer. If communication and appeals to authorities have not resolved the matter, an attorney has the tools to force facilities to follow regulations.

6) Move your relative. While this may be difficult, it is available as a last resort. This does not prevent you from taking legal action against the current facility.

Posted on Thursday, May 30th, 2013. Filed under Estate Planning, Long-Term Care, Senior Law News.

Study Finds Similar Gene Variations in African-American and Caucasian Alzheimer’s Patients

By Hook Law Center

African-Americans are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at a slightly higher rate than people of European ancestry, but a new study found no genetic difference between the groups that could account for the asymmetry.

In one of the first large studies on Alzheimer’s in African-Americans, researchers found the same gene variants that previous studies found in Caucasian Alzheimer’s patients. APoE4, a gene long known to correlate with higher Alzheimer’s risk in Caucasian people, was identified in a similar percentage of African-American patients as Caucasian patients. Another, ABCA7, was found at slightly higher rates in African-Americans with the disease.

In an editorial accompanying the publication of the research, Dr. Robert L. Nussbaum of the University of California, San Francisco, said that finding the genes in African-Americans supports theories that they contribute to susceptibility to Alzheimer’s.

The study analyzed data from 6,000 African-Americans over the age of 60. Approximately 2,000 had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers determined that ABCA7 confers an 80 percent increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s in African-Americans, compared with a risk of 10 to 20 percent among whites. Even 80 percent is considered modest; a gene conferring significant risk would at least double the likelihood of a disease. And the gene is fairly uncommon even among African-American Alzheimer’s patients, leaving the cause of the disease mostly unexplained.

ABCA7 helps move cholesterol in and out of cells and is also suspected of influencing the development of heart disease. That may explain why many Alzheimer’s patients are diagnosed with cardiovascular disease and vice-versa.

Posted on Wednesday, May 15th, 2013. Filed under Estate Planning, Long-Term Care, Senior Law News.

Americans Support Raising Taxes to Protect Social Security

By Hook Law Center

Despite years of debate on Capitol Hill, Congress has failed to act on Social Security reform.
Any reform proposal with a fighting chance would likely include an increase in payroll taxes.
Would the American public support such measures?

Recently, the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) surveyed 2,000 Americans to determine what reforms they would support in order to shore up Social Security. NASI found that 82 percent of respondents would support increasing taxes on working Americans, while 87 percent would support taxing the wealthy. Eighty-two percent of those respondents with incomes over $100,000 per year supported the idea of raising their own taxes.

Although Democrats and Independents were disproportionately likely to support tax hikes, nearly three quarters of Republicans supported increasing taxes.

The survey also asked respondents to choose from a range of hypothetical packages of adjustments to benefits and tax revenue. Not only did respondents show a willingness to raise taxes enough to close the projected financing gap, but, 71 percent preferred a package that would simultaneously increase benefits.

These measures would:

  • phase out the cap on earnings subject to payroll taxes so that all workers pay into Social Security throughout the year;
  • gradually raise the rate at which workers and employers are taxed from 6.2 percent to 7.2 percent;
  • raise the minimum Social Security benefit so that workers who paid into the system for 30 years could exceed the poverty line solely through Social Security income; and
  • increase cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) to better reflect real-world price inflation.

In contrast, the options that hurt a package’s appeal among respondents included such cost-control measures as raising the retirement age to 70 years old and enacting means-testing for benefit eligibility.

The elder law attorneys at Hook Law Center assist Virginia families with will preparation, trust & estate administration, guardianships and conservatorships, long-term care planning, special needs planning, veterans benefits, and more.

Posted on Thursday, April 25th, 2013. Filed under Long-Term Care, Medicaid, Senior Law News.

VA’s Computer Processing Speeds Assistance to Post-9/11 GI Bill Beneficiaries

By Hook Law Center

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has dramatically decreased the processing time for applicants to the Post-9/11 GI Bill program, the agency said in a recent press release.

The VA is currently engaged in a program to move from paper-based processing to electronic processing of benefit claims dubbed, the “Long Term Solution.” As a result, currently-enrolled students applying for education assistance under the GI Bill program now wait an average of 6 days for their claims to be processed versus the previous 9 days – a decrease of more than 50 percent.

The news is a bright spot in contrast to recent reports that wait times for veterans applying for other benefits have skyrocketed in recent years to as long as 18 months. New students, however, can expect to see no change in wait time. New students establishing their eligibility for the program for the first time can still expect an average wait time of 24 days.

According to the release, the VA is currently processing 46 percent of new claims for enrolled students electronically. Hope remains high that the computerization of claims processed throughout the VA will dramatically decrease wait times and backlogs of all applications.

The VA has reported providing $27 billion in benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill to veterans, their families, and educational institutions over the past three and a half years.

Posted on Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013. Filed under Veterans' Benefits.

Seniors Part of Study To Improve Cognitive Skills

By Hook Law Center

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made headlines in late February 2013 when he stated The National Science Foundation wasted more than $1 million on seniors, paying them to play the online, virtual-world game World of Warcraft and studying the effect it had on their brains. It was, said Cantor, another example of wasteful government spending.

A grant from the National Science Foundation was awarded to North Carolina State University and Georgia Tech; they were interested in studying whether playing computer games could slow mental decline, and if so, whether games had common elements that could be incorporated into cognition-enhancing “brain games.” Researchers have long wondered whether memory games and problem-solving games could be beneficial to seniors.

More than 200 seniors were tested for cognitive abilities before and after playing a spatial puzzle game to see if playing produced any change. The findings will be shared with Georgia Tech experts, who will incorporate the data into new game development focused on helping seniors retain or improve their cognitive skills. But according to the National Science Foundation’s abstract on the grant, World of Warcraft was not part of the experiment.

Interested in improving your own reasoning skills, memory and processing speed? Experts suggest you play games, work on crosswords, brain teasers and puzzles, and pick up a new hobby or craft.

The elder law attorneys and estate planning lawyers at the Hook Law Center in Virginia Beach and Suffolk, help Virginia families with trust & estate administration, guardianships, long term care planning, special needs planning, veterans benefits, and more. Learn more at https://www.hooklawcenter.com/

Posted on Saturday, March 23rd, 2013. Filed under Senior Law News.

A Call for Virginia Salute to Senior Service Volunteer Nominations

By Hook Law Center

A home health care provider for seniors is asking Virginians to nominate an outstanding senior volunteer for state — and possibly national — recognition.

The Salute to Senior Service program by Home Instead Senior Care celebrates seniors 65 and older who contribute to their community by volunteering at least 15 hours each month. The organization is inviting the public to nominate outstanding senior volunteers. Do you know someone who has made a significant contribution? You may even nominate yourself. Nominations are being accepted between February 1 and March 31, 2013. The state winners will then be chosen by popular vote on the program’s website between April 15th and April 30, 2013.

A national Salute to Senior Service honoree will then be chosen from the group of state winners by a panel of senior care experts. Home Instead has announced that it will donate $500 to the nonprofit organizations of choice as selected by each of the state winners, and their volunteer stories will be included on the online Wall of Fame. The national winner’s chosen nonprofit will receive $5,000.

The nomination form and official rules of the contest can be found online at
http://www.salutetoseniorservice.com/

The elder law attorneys and estate planning lawyers at the Hook Law Center in Virginia Beach and Suffolk, help Virginia families with trust & estate administration, guardianships, long term care planning, special needs planning, veterans benefits, and more. Learn more at https://www.hooklawcenter.com/

Posted on Wednesday, March 13th, 2013. Filed under Senior Law News.
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