02 July 2008

Working for Benefits

A recurring theme: Boomer women increasingly report, "I'm working for benefits," which may suggest that they would pursue different work or use of time if it weren't for "the benefits." Those other pursuits can be addressed another time; our topic today is what those benefits are. Typically, the primary need is for health insurance. Mentioned less frequently, at least among the women I talk to, is retirement or pension. (That doesn't mean retirement benefits are less important—just less immediate.)

Why are women working for health insurance? To start, our modern society keeps us notified about the high cost of medical care and imparts a sense of responsibility to be prepared for the worst. It's not something earlier generations had to address, mainly because they didn't live long enough to have the choice. At the last turn of the century, death came at age 40 or 50, if one was long-lived. (The wise old person in the village was honored perhaps mainly for being the only old person in the village.) At the current turn of the century, we predict death at 70 or 80 and even 90 for great numbers of our population.

But boomer women are not 70 yet. They are a decade or more younger and simply planning for a very long rest of life. In terms of health benefits, they see Medicare in the near or distant future. In the meantime, they are working for benefits and almost always mean they are purchasing insurance from an employer's group plan. A boomer woman may be covering just herself, or self plus a dependent such as spouse or child. The great historical change of note: the increasing number of women who are the earner of the benefits (not the dependent on a spouse's plan).

If they weren't working for group benefits: They would either purchase private insurance or go without. There is a middle option referred to short-hand as COBRA, typically uttered with fear and loathing. In fact, COBRA is an extension of group benefits (upon leaving employment) and a potential bridge to converted benefits (moving from group to individual coverage at the same or similar advantaged pricing). Those are good options for the person who has resources on hand to pay for COBRA in transition months. Admittedly, if resources are scarce, COBRA may not provide needed coverage, and more expensive private insurance may be completely beyond reach.
On a personal note: I remember my longevity moment. I was reading a Gail Sheehy book in which she reported some statistical research: if a woman of my age cohort (people born in the same 10-year period) made it to age 50 without having a cancer, then life span could be estimated at 90 years. That describes me, although I quickly point out that the prediction is actually based on probability. Some of us in my group will reach 90, not all of us.

Will I COBRA: I will probably COBRA this year. In leaving a university position, I have opportunity to continue my group coverage through COBRA for some months. This occurs at the same time that my husband is COBRA-ing. A lay-off package provided him with 9 months extended company-paid group insurance, to be continued through 9 months of COBRA coverage. Our coverage is not coordinated as we each carried separate insurance coverage through employment. The timing is interesting now, as we research the options for each of us. If one of us returns to employment with benefits, then we might return to a earlier pattern of carrying the other as a dependent. If neither of us returns to a company plan, we will have to research the options—and report them here.

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