3 ways to avoid high health-care costs in retirement

Figuring out how much you'll need to save for future health-care costs is one of the toughest parts of retirement planning.

If you have a job that offers health benefits, you probably haven't spent much time thinking about the total cost of your medical, dental and vision expenses. Your employer likely subsidizes the bulk of the cost of your health insurance premiums. The premiums that you pay are automatically deducted from your paycheck, so all you really need to worry about are co-payments, deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses.

But when you retire, the way you pay for health care changes dramatically—and you'll be responsible for paying for a lot more. Here's what you should know.

Understand what's covered

Medicare will generally cover about 51 percent of total health-care expenses in retirement, but it's not free, according to Ron Mastrogiovanni, founder and CEO of HealthView Services, which provides health cost data and tools to financial advisers.

Retirees must pay premiums for Medicare Parts B and D, which cover doctor visits and tests as well as prescription drug coverage. There are also co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses related to hearing, vision and dental services that are not covered by Medicare, but may be covered by a supplemental insurance policy.

Estimate basic Medicare costs

Retirees counting on Social Security to cover the bulk of their expenses in retirement could wind up using most of their benefits to cover health care if they're not careful.

An average healthy couple retiring this year at age 65 will need about $266,000 to cover Medicare Parts B and D and supplemental insurance for their lifetime, according to a recent HealthView Services report. (The estimate assumes a life expectancy of 87 years for men and 89 for women.) Expected health-care costs will rise to over $320,000 for a 55-year old couple retiring in 10 years.

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Since costs can vary greatly by a number of factorsgender, health status, income, longevity, geographic location"psychologically it can be difficult to plan for specific future needs," said Cathy Weatherford, president and CEO of the Insured Retirement Institute.

Plan ahead for potential expenses

Yet, even having a rough guide can help. Weatherford suggests making a commitment to a healthy lifestyle now so you can enjoy your retirement years. This may mean more in cumulative costs—in terms of gym memberships, personal training sessions, or organic food billsbut being free from the restraints of chronic care will help make health-care expenses more manageable later in life.

She also suggests setting more aside for future health-care needs. The more savings you have, the more options will be available to cover your health-care needs in retirement. Use online tools to help determine a savings goal and develop a savings plan to help get you there.

HealthView Services, for example, has a "Health Care Cost Projector" and "Retirement Savings Projector" on its website. They generate a free report detailing your health-care costs and savings needs.

Finally, having a basic idea of your future health-care costs and how much money you'll need to cover these expenses can be the foundation for a conversation with a financial professional, who may have access to more sophisticated planning tools.

Find a financial advisor and/or certified financial planner who specializes in retirement, medical and health issues by doing an advanced search on the Financial Planning Association and the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards websites.