MONEY Health Care

Proposed Medicare ‘Doc Fix’ Comes at a Cost to Seniors

A measure designed to head off big cuts in payments to doctors asks Medicare recipients to foot part of the bill.

Congress is headed toward a bipartisan solution to fix a Medicare formula that threatens to slash payments to doctors every year. The so-called “doc fix” would replace the cuts with a multipronged approach that will be expensive and will have Medicare beneficiaries pay part of the bill.

Congress has repeatedly overridden the payment cuts, which are mandated under a formula called the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR), which became law in 1997, that is a way of keeping growth in physician payments in line with the economy’s overall growth. This year, unless Congress acts, rates will automatically be slashed 21 percent.

In a rare instance of bipartisan collaboration, House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are pushing a plan to replace the SGR with a new formula that rewards physicians who meet certain government standards for providing high quality, cost-effective care. If they can get the plan through Congress, President Barack Obama has said he will sign it.

The fix will cost an estimated $200 billion over 10 years. Although Congress has not figured out how to pay the full tab, $70 billion will come from the pocketbooks of seniors.

There are better places to go for the money, such as allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and tightening up reimbursements to Medicare Advantage plans. But there’s no political will in Congress for that approach.

And the doc fix needs to be done. Eliminating the SGR will greatly reduce the risk that physicians will get fed up with the ongoing threat of reduced payments and stop accepting Medicare patients. “Access to physicians hasn’t been a big problem, but if doctors received a 21 percent cut in fees, that might change the picture,” says Tricia Neuman, senior vice president and director of the Program on Medicare Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Here’s what the plan would cost seniors:

Medigap reform

Many Medicare enrollees buy private Medigap policies that supplement their government-funded coverage (average annual cost: $2,166, according to Kaiser). The policies typically cover the deductible in Part B (outpatient services), which is $147 this year, and put a cap on out-of-pocket hospitalization costs.

Under the bipartisan plan, Medigap plans would no longer cover the annual Part B deductible for new enrollees, starting in 2020, so seniors would have to pay it themselves. Current Medigap policyholders and new enrollees up to 2020 would be protected.

The goal would be to make seniors put more “skin in the game,” which conservatives have long argued would lower costs by making patients think twice about using medical services if they know they must pay something for all services they use.

Plenty of research confirms that higher out-of-pocket expense will reduce utilization, but that doesn’t mean the reform will actually save money for Medicare.

Numerous studies show that exposure to higher out-of-pocket costs results in people using fewer services, Neuman says. If seniors forgo care because of the deductible, Medicare would achieve some savings. “The hope is people will be more sensitive to costs and go without unnecessary care,” she says. “But if instead, some forgo medical care that they need, they may require expensive care down the road, potentially raising costs for Medicare over time.”

High-income premium surcharges

Affluent enrollees already pay more for Medicare. Individuals with modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) starting at $85,000 ($170,000 for joint filers) pay a higher share of the government’s full cost of coverage in Medicare Part B and Part D for prescription drug coverage. This year, for example, seniors with incomes at or below $85,0000 pay $104.90 per month in Part B premiums, but higher income seniors pay between $146.90 and $335.70, depending on their income.

The new plan will shift a higher percentage of costs to higher-income seniors starting in 2018 for those with MAGI between $133,500 and $214,000 (twice that for couples). Seniors with income of $133,000 to $160,000 would pay 65 percent of total premium costs, rather than 50 percent today. Seniors with incomes between $160,000 and $214,000 would pay 80 percent rather than 65 percent, as they do today.

Everyone pays more for Part B

Under current law, enrollee premiums are set to cover 25 percent of Medicare Part B spending, so some of the doc fix’s increased costs will be allocated to them automatically. Neuman says a freeze in physician fees is already baked into the monthly Part B premium for this year, so she expects the doc fix to result in a relatively modest increase in premiums for next year, although it’s difficult to say how much because so many other factors drive the numbers.

MONEY Pensions

Here’s a New Reason to Think Twice About Trading In Your Pension

More workers are being offered lump-sum pension buyouts. But the information packets they receive leave out crucial details, a GAO study finds.

If you are due a pension from a former employer, there is a good chance you were or soon will be offered a lump-sum payment in exchange for giving up that guaranteed monthly check for life.

Should you take it? Probably not, but making a smart decision depends on a complex set of assumptions about future interest rates, possible rates of market returns and your longevity. It is a tough analysis unless you have an actuarial background.

Unfortunately, employers are not providing enough information.

That is the conclusion of a recent review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office of 11 lump-sum-offer information packets provided to beneficiaries by pension plan sponsors.

The key failings included unclear comparisons of the lump sum’s value compared with the value of lifetime pension payouts. Also lacking were many of the explanations of mortality factors and interest rates used to calculate the lump sums.

Even more worrisome was missing information about the insurance guarantees that probably would be available to participants from the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp in the event of a sponsor default.

That is a major problem because fear of pension failure is one of the biggest factors driving participants to accept lump-sum offers. Having PBGC insurance is like having your bank deposits guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp; if a plan fails, most workers receive 100% of the benefits they have earned up to that point.

The GAO did find that the packets were in compliance with the Internal Revenue Service rules on disclosures to employees. However, it urged the U.S. Department of Labor to tighten reporting requirements on lump-sum offers and to work with other federal agencies to clarify the guidance sponsors should be providing.

Better information certainly would be helpful to beneficiaries as the lump-sum trend continues to grow.

Private sector pension plans are trying to lower their risk that recipients will live longer and therefore collect more than the actuaries originally planned.

Twenty-two percent of sponsors say they are “very likely” to make lump-sum offers to former, vested workers this year, up from 14% in 2014, according to a study by Aon Hewitt, the employee benefit consulting firm.

But better information alone is not likely to lead to better decisions,” says Norman Stein, a law professor at Drexel University and an expert on pension law.

Beneficiaries often make up their minds based on emotional factors like fear of a pension plan default or the appeal of getting a large pile of cash up front, says Steve Vernon, an actuary and consulting research scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity.

In most cases, beneficiaries will come out ahead by sticking with a monthly check from a pension, but you should evaluate the lump-sum offer against such factors as your likely life expectancy and other sources of guaranteed income (Social Security or a spouse’s pension).

Some beneficiaries accept lump sums expecting to get better returns by investing the proceeds. But an apples-to-apples comparison requires measuring the rate of return used to calculate your lump sum against risk-free investments like certificates of deposit or Treasuries. After all, most private-sector pensions are a guaranteed income source backed by the U.S. government.

You could also take the lump sum and buy an annuity, but these commercial products typically will generate 10% to 30% less income than your pension, Vernon says.

“A good measure of the lump sum offer is to calculate how much it would cost you to buy that annuity from an insurance company,” he says.

You can get an estimate of a lump-sum conversion at ImmediateAnnuities.com. Vanguard offers an annuity marketplace for its customers.

But Vernon has a more basic way to think about a lump-sum decision.

“Just the fact that employers call this ‘pension risk transfer’ should give you pause,” he says. “These big corporations want to transfer mortality and interest risk to you because they don’t want it.

“Ask yourself: ‘Why should I take something my employer doesn’t want?'”

Read next: Here’s How to Tell If You’re Saving Enough for Retirement

MONEY Getting Ahead

How to Learn to Love Your Job Again When You’re Feeling Burned Out

"There are things you can do to find joy around the edges," says career expert Kerry Hannon.

If you are counting the days to retirement because you hate your job, career expert Kerry Hannon has a message for you: “Stick with it.”

Burnout is one of the biggest problems in the workplace, especially for older workers. An annual survey on retirement by the Employee Benefit Research Institute consistently finds that about half of workers retire earlier than they expected—and that job burnout is a key factor.

But sticking it out is important to retirement security, Hannon says in her new book Love Your Job: The New Rules for Career Happiness. These are usually the highest-earning years of your career, she argues. And staying employed helps with everything from retirement account contributions to enabling a delayed filing for Social Security benefits.

Reuters asked Hannon for her tips on how older workers can stay engaged and on the job:

Q: Why is the idea of “falling in love with your job” important for older workers nearing retirement?

A: The people I interview have this palpable fear about outliving their money. They want to find work—full- or part-time. But even with the improved economy, if you’re over 50 and looking for work, it’s still hard—it takes almost 30 months longer to find a job than it does for younger people; ageism is still rampant. So, if you have a job, for gosh sakes, you should hang on to it.

Q: But what if your job is really awful?

A: There still are things you can do to find some joy around the edges—to make the job come alive for you. But it might not be specific to the job. Then, if you really need to make a change, by all means do so, but don’t leave your current job until you have a new one.

Q: What are some examples of finding “joy around the edges?”

A: Perhaps you don’t love what you do, but you do really like your co-workers or the mission of the organization. It might be the challenge of learning something new, or working from home—the things that circle around the job itself.

Extracurriculars tied to the job are one good way to get re-engaged. Many companies offer the opportunity to do volunteer work right within the organization. If you can find a volunteer gig through your employer, that can help build relationships with co-workers and bonds across departments that you might never have had otherwise. And it gets you out of your own head and gives you perspective on the needs of others.

A couple examples that I mention in the book: The National Institutes of Health has its own orchestra that plays gigs at assisted living centers and hospices. Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc has an employee choir.

You might find it by telecommuting. Research shows that telecommuting employees are happier, more loyal and have fewer absences. If you don’t have a boss hovering over you, that can give you a sense of flexibility about getting your work done.

Q: How about learning to love the job itself?

A: Learning a new work-related skill can be key. When you learn something new, your brain shifts. If your employer sponsors workshops or skill-based learning, they may not think of offering it to you if you’re older than 50 – but you can raise your hand and ask for it.

Q: How do life values change as we get older, and how does that affect the way we relate to our jobs?

A: When we are younger, our work is our life on so many levels. In your twenties and thirties, your social friends usually are your work friends. Your identity is tied up in who you are and your job. And, we are establishing ourselves in our fields.

But as we age we have families and more outside interests. In your fifties, you probably aren’t pushing your way up the ladder, perhaps even doing something that wasn’t your primary career. So, work loses its emphasis, but you want those hours to be fulfilling.

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MONEY IRAs

There’s Free Money for IRA Rollovers—Here’s How to Invest It

Should you take the money and run? Only if you choose the right low-cost funds.

Back in the day, you could walk into a bank to open a new account and walk out with a free toaster.

Today, you can get anywhere from $50 to $2,500 for rolling over a 401(k) into an Individual Retirement Account, or just by moving an IRA from another financial institution.

But since banks are not in the habit of giving away money, you need to ask: What is the catch?

IRA providers use cash incentives, which are cheaper than advertising or direct mail, to acquire new customers. The latest marketing twist comes from Fidelity Investments, which is offering an “IRA Match” program to new and existing customers who transfer a Roth, traditional or rollover IRA to the company. Rollovers from 401(k)s are not eligible.

Fidelity will match your contributions up to 10% for the first three years that the account is open, although you would have to roll over a whopping $500,000 or more to get that level of match.

For most people, the match will be much smaller. A rollover of $50,000, for example, would qualify for a 1.5% match in each of the next three years. That is worth $260 over three years if you max out your annual contributions at $5,500, or $290 if you are over age 50 and eligible to make additional $1,000 catch-up contributions.

Fidelity is pitching this as the way to encourage higher levels of retirement savings, the way many employers make matching contributions to workers’ 401(k) plans.

“When you look at what really works in the retirement space, you can see that the employer match is a major factor driving participation,” says Lauren Brouhard, Fidelity Investments’ senior vice president for retirement. “We wanted to take an element of what works in the workplace and bring it to the IRA.”

Similar deals abound. For example, Charles Schwab Corp frequently runs promotions offering up to $2,500 for opening a new account, including rollovers from 401(k)s. Ally Bank will pay a $100 bonus for rolling between $25,000 and $50,000, and more for larger rollovers. Just do a Web search for “IRA cash bonus” to see how pervasive the practice has become.

Should you take the money and run? Perhaps, but do not let the cash distract you from more fundamental considerations.

For starters, do not roll funds out of a workplace 401(k) plan into an IRA if it charges higher fees. You should also make sure that the new provider offers the type of retirement investments you are looking for.

If you are rolling over to a mutual fund or brokerage company, the cardinal rule is to make sure your new provider does not earn back the bonus by parking you in high-cost active mutual funds or managed portfolio services.

“It’s a free lunch, but not if you yield to the temptations,” says Mitch Tuchman, managing director of Rebalance IRA, a wealth management firm that offers low-cost IRA portfolio management. “You have to avoid falling prey to the sirens of active management.”

Instead, manage your portfolio yourself by creating a portfolio of inexpensive passive index funds or exchange traded funds, which are available through their providers’ brokerage services.

To illustrate, he suggested a portfolio of four Vanguard ETFs whose fees are each below 20 basis points: Total U.S. Stock Market, Total International stocks, Total Bond Market and Total International Bond.

You can view Tuchman’s sample portfolios here.

Read next: 5 Signs You Will Become a Millionaire

MONEY financial advisers

Proposed Retiree Safeguard Is Long Overdue

businessman putting money into his suit jacket pocket
Jan Stromme—Getty Images

The financial-advice regulations pushed by the Obama administration will save retirees, on average, an estimated $12,000.

When you are planning for retirement and ask for advice, whose interest should come first — yours or the financial expert you ask for help?

That is the question at the heart of a Washington debate over the unsexy-sounding term “fiduciary standard.” Simply put, it is a legal responsibility requiring an adviser to put the best interest of a client ahead of all else.

The issue has been kicking around Washington ever since the financial crisis, and it took a dramatic turn on Monday when President Barack Obama gave a very public embrace to an expanded set of fiduciary rules. In a speech at AARP, the president endorsed rules proposed by the Department of Labor that would require everyone giving retirement investment advice to adhere to a fiduciary standard.

The president’s decision to embrace and elevate fiduciary reform into a major policy move is huge.

“The White House knows that this is the most significant action it can take to promote retirement security without legislation,” said Cristina Martin Firvida, director of financial security and consumer affairs at AARP, which has been pushing for adoption of the new fiduciary rules.

Today, financial planning advice comes in two flavors. Registered investment advisors (RIAs) are required to meet a fiduciary standard. Most everyone else you would encounter in this sphere — stockbrokers, broker-dealer representatives and people who sell financial products for banks or insurance companies — adhere to a weaker standard where they are allowed to put themselves first.

“Most people don’t know the difference,” said Christopher Jones, chief investment officer of Financial Engines, a large RIA firm that provides fiduciary financial advice to workers in 401(k) plans.

The difference can be huge for your retirement outcome. A report issued this month by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers found that retirement savers receiving conflicted advice earn about 1 percentage point less in returns, with an aggregate loss of $17 billion annually.

The report pays special attention to the huge market of rollovers from workplace 401(k)s to individual retirement accounts — transfers which often occur when workers retire. Nine of 10 new IRAs are rollovers, according to the Investment Company Institute mutual fund trade group. The CEA report estimates that $300 billion is rolled over annually, and the figures are accelerating along with baby-boom-generation retirements.

The CEA report estimates a worker receiving conflicted advice would lose about 12% of the account’s value over a 30-year period of drawdowns. Since the average IRA rollover for near-retirees is just over $100,000, that translates into a $12,000 loss.

What constitutes conflicted advice? Plan sponsors — employers — have a fiduciary responsibility to act in participants’ best interest. But many small 401(k) plans hire plan recordkeepers and advisers who are not fiduciaries. They are free to pitch expensive mutual funds and annuity products, and industry data consistently shows that small plans have higher cost and lower rates of return than big, well-managed plans.

The rollover market also is rife with abuse, often starting with the advice to roll over in the first place. Participants in well-constructed, low-fee 401(k)s most often would do better leaving their money where it is at retirement; IRA expenses run 0.25 to 0.30 percentage points higher than 401(k)s, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Yet the big mutual fund companies blitz savers with cash come-ons, and, as I wrote recently, very few of their “advisers” ask customers the basic questions that would determine whether a rollover is in order.

The industry makes the Orwellian argument that a fiduciary standard will make it impossible for the industry to offer cost-effective assistance to the middle class. But that argument ignores the innovations in technology and business practices that already are shaking up the industry with low-cost advice options.

How effective will the new rules be? The devil will be in the details. Any changes are still a little far off: TheDepartment of Labor is expected to publish the new rules in a few months — a timetable that already is under attack by industry opponents as lacking a duly deliberative process.

Enough, already. This debate has been kicking around since the financial crisis, and an expanded fiduciary is long overdue.

MONEY Social Security

Why a Better Job Market Can Mean a Social Security Bonus

Getting back to work for even a few years before you retire can make a big difference to your income.

More Americans over 55 are finally getting back to work after the long recession. The strong national employment report for January released last week confirmed that. The unemployment rate for those over 55 was just 4.1% in January, down from 4.5% a year ago and well below the national jobless rate. The 55-plus labor force participation rate inched up to 40% from 39.9%.

That is good news for patching up household balance sheets damaged by years of lost employment and savings, and also for boosting future Social Security benefits.

Social Security is a benefit you earn through work and payroll tax contributions. One widely known way to boost your monthly benefit amount is to work longer and delay your claiming date. But simply getting back into the job market can help.

Your Social Security benefit is calculated using a little-understood formula called the primary insurance amount (PIA). The PIA is determined by averaging together the 35 highest-earning years of your career. Those lifetime earnings are then wage-indexed to make them comparable with what workers are earning in the year you turn 60, using a formula called average indexed monthly earnings (AIME); finally, a progressivity formula is applied that returns greater amounts to lower-income workers (called “bend points”).

But what if you are getting close to retirement age and have less than 35 years of earnings due to joblessness during the recession?

The Social Security Administration still calculates your best 35 years. It just means that five of those years will be zeros, reducing the average wage used to calculate your PIA.

By going back to work in any capacity, you start to replace those zeros with years of earnings. That helps bring your average wage figure up a bit, even if you are earning less than in your last job, or working part time.

“Any earnings you have in a given year have the opportunity to go into your high 35,” notes Stephen C. Goss, Social Security’s chief actuary.

I ran the numbers for a an average worker (2014 income: $49,000) born in 1953, comparing PIA levels following 40 years of full employment with the benefit level assuming a layoff in 2009. The fully employed worker enters retirement at age 66 (the full retirement age) with an annual PIA of $20,148; the laid-off worker’s PIA is reduced by $924 (4.6%). Getting back into the labor force in 2014, and working through 2015, would restore $720 of that loss.

That might not sound like much, but it would total nearly $25,000 in lifetime Social Security benefits for a female worker who lives to age 88, assuming a 3% annual rate of inflation. And for higher income workers, the differences would be greater.

You also can continue “backfilling” your earnings if you work past 60, Goss notes. “You get credit all the way along the way. If you happen to work up to age 70 or even beyond, we recalculate your benefit if you have had more earnings.”

The timing of your filing also is critical. You’re eligible to file for a retirement benefit as early as age 62, but that would reduce your PIA 25 percent, a cut that would persist for the rest of your life. Waiting until after full retirement age allows you to earn delayed filing credits, which works out to 8% for each 12-month period you delay. Waiting one extra year beyond normal retirement age would get you 108% of your PIA; delaying a second year would get you 116%, and so on. You can earn those credits up until the year when you turn 70, and you also will receive any cost-of-living adjustment awarded during the intervening years when you finally file.

Getting back to work will be a tonic for many older Americans, but what they might not realize is that it is also a great path to filling their retirement gap with more robust Social Security checks.

MONEY Second Career

Why Elite Colleges Are Targeting Baby Boomers for New Career Programs

Stanford college
Linda A. Cicero—Stanford News

Harvard and Stanford have launched programs for high-level execs seeking to change careers. Other universities are looking to jump in.

Stanford University welcomed 25 unusual students onto its campus this month—all in their 50s and 60s.

They are the inaugural fellows of a new program, the Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI), designed for people who want to follow more than one career path in their lifetimes and who want to go back to a college setting for more training. It is the forefront of a new movement for universities to look beyond typical 19-year-old undergraduates.

“People are finding that their initial careers might last 20 or 30 years, and then they need to prepare for new work that might last another couple decades,” says Dr.Philip Pizzo, the founder of the program and a pioneering oncologist who is a former dean of Stanford’s School of Medicine.

DCI is similar to a Harvard University’s Advanced Learning Initiative, launched in 2009. Both are one-year programs that focus on elite “C-suite” leaders looking to transform the second half of their careers, and both are expensive. DCI costs $60,000, not including housing; tuition and other costs of the Harvard program are similar.

Pizzo, who just turned 70, arguably is launching his own next act with the institute after a distinguished career in medicine that includes stints at the National Institutes of Health and Harvard University.

He is hoping to start something of a movement. Pizzo says he will start talking with other university leaders later this year about what Stanford is learning at DCI and encourage others to embrace its principles.

“We’re an elite program, but not elitist,” he says.

Another group, the non-profit San Francisco-based group’s “EncoreU” initiative is pushing universities to focus on older students making career changes, and it will convene a group of college presidents this fall to talk about how to make it happen.

LIFE ON CAMPUS

Jere Brooks King is a typical mid-career education fellow. She enrolled in Stanford’s DCI program after a 35-year career in sales and marketing roles at high technology companies, punctuated by early retirement from Cisco in 2011 at age 55. She turned 59 just before DCI’s kick-off this month.

King, who has served on the boards of several non-profits and industry associations, is using the DCI fellowship to expand her knowledge of board governance. She hopes to apply that expertise working with entrepreneurial start-ups focused on technology and social innovation.

“It’s really exciting to explore the latest thinking on campus around the connection between technology and social innovation,” she says. “I’m getting the chance to hear from venture capitalists interested in social innovation, and see what students are doing with their own ventures.”

DCI fellows pick an area of academic focus from nine areas, ranging from arts and humanities to engineering, healthcare or social sciences. They also participate in weekly discussion seminars and intergenerational mentoring and leadership sessions.

What kind of reaction are the DCI fellows getting from Stanford undergraduates?

“We think we fit right in, and we’ve been welcomed warmly,” says King. “But I’m sure we stand out, because we all look like someone’s parent—or grandparent.”

Read next: How to Jump from a Second Career to a Dream Encore Job

MONEY retirement planning

Why Obama’s Proposals Just Might Help Middle Class Retirement Security

150122_RET_ObamaHelpRet
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images U.S. President Barack Obama delivering the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.

Congress probably won't pass an auto IRA, and Social Security is being ignored. But the retirement crisis is finally getting attention.

Remember Mitt Romney’s huge IRA? During the 2012 campaign, we learned that the governor managed to amass $20 million to $100 million in an individual retirement account, much more than anyone could accumulate under the contribution limit rules without some unusual investments and appreciation.

Romney’s IRA found its way, indirectly, into a broader set of retirement policy reforms unveiled in President Obama’s State of the Union proposals on Tuesday.

The president proposed scaling back the tax deductibility of mega-IRAs to help pay for other changes designed to bolster middle class retirement security. I found plenty to like in the proposals, with one big exception: the failure to endorse a bold plan to expand Social Security.

Yes, that is just another idea with no chance in this Congress, but Democrats should give it a strong embrace, especially in the wake of the House’s adoption of rules this month that could set the stage for cuts in disability benefits.

The administration signaled its general opposition to the House plan, but has not spelled out its own.

Instead, Obama listed proposals, starting with “auto-IRAs,” whereby employers with more than 10 employees who have no retirement plans of their own would be required to automatically enroll their workers in an IRA. Workers could opt out, but automatic features in 401(k) plans already have shown this kind of behavioral nudge will be a winner. The president also proposed tax credits to offset the start-up costs for businesses.

The auto-IRA would be a more full version of the “myRA” accounts already launched by the administration. Both are structured like Roth IRAs, accepting post-tax contributions that accumulate toward tax-free withdrawals in retirement. Both accounts take aim at a critical problem—the lack of retirement savings among low-income households.

The president wants to offset the costs of auto-IRAs by capping contributions to 401(k)s and IRAs. The cap would be determined using a formula tied to current interest rates; currently, it would kick in when balances hit $3.4 million. If rates rose, the cap would be somewhat lower—for example, $2.7 million if rates rose to historical norms.

The argument here is that IRAs were never meant for such large accumulations; the Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked into mega-IRAs after the 2012 election, and reported back to Congress that a small number of account holders had indeed amassed very large balances, “likely by investing in assets unavailable to most investors—initially valued very low and offering disproportionately high potential investment returns if successful.”

The report estimated that 37,000 Americans have IRAs with balances ranging from $3 million to $5 million; fewer than 10,000 had balances over $5 million.

Finally, the White House proposed opening employer retirement plans to more part-time workers. Currently, plan sponsors can exclude employees working fewer than 1,000 hours per year, no matter how long they have been with the company. The proposal would require sponsors to open their plans to workers who have been with them for at least 500 hours per year for three years.

These ideas might seem dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Congress. But the White House proposals add momentum to a growing populist movement around the country to focus on middle class retirement security.

As noted here last week, Illinois just became the first state to implement an innovative automatic retirement savings plan similar to the auto-IRA, and more than half the states are considering similar ideas.

These savings programs are sensible ideas, but their impact will not be huge. That is because the households they target lack the resources to sock away enough money to generate accumulations that can make a real difference at retirement.

Expanding Social Security offers a more sure, and efficient, path to bolstering retirement security of lower-income households. If Obama wants to go down in the history books as a strong supporter of the middle class, he has got to start making the case for Social Security expansion—and time is getting short.

Read next: Why Illinois May Become a National Model for Retirement Saving

MONEY Social Security

Why Defending Social Security Needs to Be Next on Obama’s To-Do List

House Republicans voted to block a financial fix to Social Security's disability trust fund, which runs out of money in 2016. That would result in a 20% benefits cut.

Since the midterm elections, President Obama has taken decisive action on immigration reform, climate change and relations with Cuba. Now, the new Republican-controlled Congress has handed him another opportunity to act boldly—by leaving a legacy as a strong defender of Social Security.

House Republicans signaled this week that they are gearing up for a major clash over the country’s most important retirement program. In a surprise move, they adopted a rule on the first day of the new session that effectively forbids the House from approving any financial fix to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program unless it is coupled with broader reforms. That would almost surely mean damaging benefit cuts for retirees struggling in the post-recession economy.

Republicans see an opening for benefit cuts in the SSDI trust fund. It is under severe financial pressure and on track to be exhausted at the end of 2016, when 11 million of the most vulnerable Americans would face benefit cuts on the order of 20%.

The rational solution is a reallocation of resources from Social Security’s Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund (OASI). Such reallocations have been done 11 times in the past, and funds have flowed in both directions. Shifting just one-tenth of 1% from OASI to SSDI would extend the disability fund’s life to 2033.

Instead, House leaders appear to be maneuvering to push through an SSDI fix during the lame duck session following the 2016 elections. Such an 11th-hour package would likely impose cuts to the retirement program, including higher retirement ages and reduced annual cost-of-living adjustments. Legislators wouldn’t have to explain a vote for benefit cuts to their constituents before the elections, and might avoid accountability if changes to Social Security get tacked on to an omnibus spending bill or other yearend legislation.

“I don’t know why this had to be done on Day One,” said Cristina Martin Firvida, director of financial security at AARP. “It makes it much less likely that we’ll deal with the disability problem until the lame duck session—and that won’t provide a good result for American taxpayers.”

Critics say the disability program is rife with fraud, and out-of-work baby boomers too young for retirement benefits are freeloading by getting disability benefits. There’s no doubt that a program the size of SSDI is subject to some abuse, or that reform may be needed.

But SSDI’s real problems are less sensational. They include more baby boomers at an age when disability typically occurs and more women in the labor market eligible to receive benefits. Meanwhile, the increase in the full retirement age now under way, from 65 to 67, adds cost to SSDI, as disabled beneficiaries wait longer to shift into the retirement program.

This throwing down of the gauntlet should send a loud, clear signal to Democrats: It’s time to reclaim your legacy as the creators and defenders of Social Security. A small number of progressive Democrats have embraced proposals to expand benefits, funded by a gradual increase in payroll taxes and lifting the cap on covered earnings, but most Democrats have been spineless, mouthing platitudes about “keeping Social Security strong”—a pledge that could mean just about anything.

Expansion is not only doable financially—it has overwhelming public support. A poll released last fall by the National Academy of Social Insurance found that 72% of Americans think we should consider increasing benefits. Seventy-seven percent said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to finance expansion—a position embraced by 69% of Republicans, 76% of independents and 84% of Democrats.

Congressional Republicans are way out of step with Americans on this issue, and so is the White House. The administration has been all too willing to flirt with benefit cuts as it chased one illusory “grand bargain” after another.

But the unbound Obama now has an opportunity to stiffen and redefine his party’s resolve on Social Security. The president should propose expansion legislation. Democratic presidential and congressional candidates should run on Social Security expansion in 2016 and work to assure that reform isn’t tackled in an unaccountable lame duck vote.

In 2005 a young Democratic senator sized up Social Security politics during the debate over President George W. Bush’s plan to privatize the program:

“[People in power] use the word ‘reform’ when they mean ‘privatize,’ and they use ‘strengthen’ when they really mean ‘dismantle.’ They tell us there’s a crisis to get us all riled up so we’ll sit down and listen to their plan to privatize …

“Democrats are absolutely united in the need to strengthen Social Security and make it solvent for future generations. We know that, and we want that.”

That senator was Barack Obama of Illinois.

Read next: Why Illinois May Become a National Model for Retirement Saving

MONEY Pensions

What Retirees Need to Know about the New Federal Pension Rules

Only a small percentage of retirees are directly affected by the new rule. But future legislation may lead to more pension cutbacks.

The last-minute deal to allow retiree pension benefit cuts as part of the federal spending bill for 2015 passed by Congress last week has set off shock waves in the U.S. retirement system.

Buried in the $1.1 trillion “Cromnibus” legislation signed this week by President Barack Obama was a provision that aims to head off a looming implosion of multiemployer pension plans—traditional defined benefit plans jointly funded by groups of employers. The pension reforms affect only retirees in struggling multiemployer pension plans, but any retiree living on a defined benefit pension could rightly wonder: Am I next?

“Even people who aren’t impacted directly by this would have to ask themselves: If they’re doing that, what’s to stop them from doing it to me?” says Jeff Snyder, vice president of Cammack Retirement Group, a consulting and investment advisory firm that works with retirement plans.

The answer: plenty. Private sector pensions are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which prevents cuts for retirees in most cases. The new legislation doesn’t affect private sector workers in single-employer plans. Workers and retirees in public sector pension plans also are not affected by the law.

Here are answers to some of the key questions workers and retirees should be asking in the legislation’s wake.

Q: Cutting benefits for people who already are retired seems unfair. Why was this done?

A: Proponents argue it was better to preserve some pension benefit for workers in the most troubled plans rather than letting plans collapse. The multiemployer plans are backstopped by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp (PBGC), the federally sponsored agency that insures private sector pensions. The multiemployer fund was on track to run out of money within 10 years—a date that could be hastened if healthy companies withdraw from their plans. If the multiemployer backup system had been allowed to collapse, pensioners would have been left with no benefit.

Opponents, including AARP and the Pension Rights Center, argued that cutting benefits for current retirees was draconian and established a bad precedent.

Q: Who will be affected by the new law? If I have a traditional pension, should I worry?

A: Only pensioners in multiemployer plans are at risk, and even there, the risk is limited to retirees in “red zone” plans—those that are severely underfunded. Of the 10 million participants in multiemployer plans, perhaps 1 million will see some cuts. The new law also prohibits any cuts for beneficiaries over age 80, or who receive a disability pension.

Q: What will be the size of the cuts?

A: That is up to plan trustees. However, the maximum cuts permitted under the law are dramatic. Many retirees in these troubled plans were well-paid union workers who receive substantial pension benefits. For a retiree with 25 years of service and a $25,000 annual benefit, the maximum annual cut permitted under the law is $13,200, according to a cutback calculator at the Pension Rights Center’s website.

The cuts must be approved by a majority of all the active and retired workers in a plan (not just a majority of those who vote).

Q: How do I determine if I’m at risk?

A: Plan sponsors are required to send out an annual funding notice indicating the funding status of your program. Plans in the red zone must send workers a “critical status alert.” If you’re in doubt, Snyder suggests, “just call your retirement plan administrator,” Snyder says. “Simply ask, if you have cause for concern. Is your plan underfunded?”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s website maintains a list of plans on the critical list.

Q: How quickly would the cuts be made?

A: If a plan’s trustees decide to make cuts, a notice would be sent to workers. Snyder says implementation would take at least six months, and might require “a year or more.”

Q: Am I safe if I am in a single employer pension plan?

A: When the PBGC takes over a private sector single employer plan, about 85% of beneficiaries receive the full amount of their promised benefit. The maximum benefit paid by PBGC this year is $59,320.

Q: Does this law make it more likely that we’ll see efforts to cut other retiree benefits?

A: That will depend on the political climate in Washington, and in statehouses across the country. In a previous column I argued that the midterm elections results boost the odds of attacks on public sector pensions, Social Security and Medicare.

Sadly, the Cromnibus deal should serve as a warning that full pension benefits aren’t a sure thing anymore. So having a Plan B makes sense. “If you have a defined benefit pension, great,” Snyder says. “But you should still be putting money away to make sure you have something to rely on in the future.”

Read next: This Is the Toughest Threat to Boomers’ Retirement Plans

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