Carrie Schwab Pomerantz

If you're fortunate enough to think about retiring early, you've obviously been doing some smart financial planning. But in spite of all the calculating you've done to prepare for this next phase in your life, there's one area where you might want to take a second look at the numbers - health insurance.

Take the situation of a colleague of mine. With a husband at full retirement age and eligible for Medicare, she decided to take early retirement so the two of them could travel. Being healthy, she felt comfortable with a high-deductible health insurance plan. But as she tells me now, she had no idea how quickly all the expenses could add up. Now she and her husband are paying more for health care than for their trips.

The potentially high expenses don't mean you have to change your plans; however, you need to take a realistic look at the cost of health care and factor it into your overall retirement budget.

Here are some eye-opening facts and important considerations:

According to a Harvard study, in 2001 medical bills were the No. 1 cause of personal bankruptcy in America. The AARP Public Policy Institute states that in 2005 more than 7 million Americans from age 50-64 were without health insurance. A recent Fidelity Investments analysis suggests that an average couple starting retirement today at age 65 and on Medicare will need $215,000 to pay for health care costs. Add the fact that the cost of health care has outpaced inflation for the past 15 years, and you can see why adequate health insurance is a crucial part of your retirement plan.

CONSIDER YOUR OPTIONS

So how can you make sure you're covered? You actually have a number of options.Evaluate your current coverage. If your employer offers retiree medical benefits until age 65 when you qualify for Medicare, you're one of the lucky ones. This type of continued coverage is becoming less common as employers' insurance costs rise, but it's definitely worth checking out. Your premium and co-payment may be more than you're paying now, but would be less than an individual policy.

Take advantage of COBRA. You may be able to continue insurance under your employer's plan for 18 months after you retire. This short-term solution will cost more since you'll have to cover the entire premium, but it's ordinarily less expensive than an individual plan. Plus, it gives you some time to look at other alternatives.

Explore other group policies. If you're part of a professional, educational or religious organization, you may be able to purchase health insurance through that group at a lower cost. You could even decide to go back to school on a part-time basis and perhaps qualify for student health insurance.


Carrie Schwab Pomerantz

Carrie Schwab Pomerantz is a Motley Fool contributor.

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