As Medicare celebrates its 50th anniversary, consumers may find there's still plenty about the government program that's tough to cheer about, if they're not careful about their choices.
"I don't think Medicare is very user friendly, although they have tried to be," said economist Alice Rivlin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
One of the first potential missteps is waiting until your 65th birthday is imminent to think about Medicare, said Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner in Jacksonville, Florida. Many people don't understand what the various parts of Medicare cover, she said—and perhaps more important, what they don't. Some of the noticeable gaps include long-term care, most dental care, vision exams if you need prescription glasses, and hearing aids.
"They don't understand there's unlimited out-of-pocket potential," said McClanahan. A healthy couple retiring this year is likely to spend $266,589 over their lifetimes on Medicare Parts B and D, and supplemental insurance, according to the 2015 Retirement Health Care Cost Data Report. Including uncovered costs such as dental, vision and co-pays, the tally rises to $394,954.
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Those gaps can merit more advance planning. The need for long-term care insurance, for example, is something best assessed in your 50s, said Lazetta Rainey-Braxton, a certified financial planner in Baltimore. But that tends to fly under the radar. "People just think it's a medical issue, with long-term care," she said.