The good news: Social Security recipients are getting their first cost-of-living raise, 3.6 percent, since 2009. The bad news: Rising Medicare premiums will eat into that increase for many, and could erase it entirely for a small percentage.
Advocates for older Americans say prices on necessities like drugs continued to rise even during the years when no increases were given. Plus, volatile food and energy prices strain the budgets of retirees on a fixed income. On Wednesday, the government reported that consumer prices rose 0.3 percent in September, driven by higher prices for food and for gas. Minus prices hikes for those items, inflation rose a mere 0.1 percent in the month.
Still, in the latest 12 months, rising prices were enough to justify the 3.6 percent increase.
"Seniors have basically been in a standstill for two full years, and some of that breathing room is going to be wiped out by the fact that premiums are going up," says Cathy Weatherford, CEO of the Insured Retirement Institute, a trade association for providers of annuities, insurance and financial planning.
There's no argument that Americans rely too heavily on programs like Social Security for their retirement income. More than half of married seniors depend on Social Security for 50 percent of their income; slightly less than a quarter rely on it for 90 percent of their income, according to the Social Security Administration. While the Medicare increase won't be dire for everyone, the concern it's generating raises a red flag that many Americans are woefully underfunded for their so-called golden years.
According to Paul Van de Water, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, about 3 percent of Social Security recipients will see their entire COLA increase wiped out by the Medicare Part B premium hike. The COLA increase works out to an average of $40 a month per beneficiary. While the exact details on the Medicare Part B premium won't be announced until next month, Van de Water says the most recent estimates project an average $10 per month.
The average senior will still come out ahead, he says. "The COLA is doing exactly what it's supposed to" by giving seniors a hedge against rising inflation, he says.
A statement issued by the AARP says the rise in Medicare premiums is one of many issues contributing to the financial pressure seniors face. Of course, a COLA can't be a hedge against a drop in property values or stock portfolio values, which is why the IRI's Weatherford says people need to take more of an active role in their retirement planning.
"It's a clarion call for those of us that are making plans to live on Social Security to start thinking about this," she says. We've got to be much more personally aware."