In last week's column, I discussed how a recent hospital stay and a brush with mortality reinforced my belief that way too many people worry way too much about the little things in life — like picking up every last crumb they can out of their slice of the Social Security pie. I mean, I totally understand why folks want to get the highest return possible on their Social Security "investment." Obviously, they want to make the best decision they can about when to start their Social Security. (And to help folks make that decision, a free digital copy of my fact sheet, "When to take your Social Security benefits," is available to anyone who sends me an email at email@example.com.)
But what I find so puzzling is the countless emails I get from anxiety-plagued readers who treat the decision of when to start their Social Security benefits like a major life or death conundrum. It's simply not. Most people just need to decide if they want smaller benefits for a longer period of time — by starting their Social Security checks between ages 62 and 66 or if they want larger benefits for possibly a shorter period of time — by waiting until as late as 70 before turning on the Social Security spigot.
There is really no magic formula. Because no one knows how long he or she will live, no one really knows if they are making the correct decision about starting their government benefits. So why worry about it? As I point out often in this column, my wife and I took our benefits at age 62. If we live into our late 80s or early 90s, it will turn out to have been a dumb choice. But I simply don't care. We're having too much fun enjoying life to worry about it.
Anyway, that was last week's message. This week, I have another story to tell that grew out of my recent hospital stay.
Back in about 1975, a couple years after I was hired by the Social Security Administration to work in one of their local field offices back in the farm country of central Illinois, I was assigned to clean out an office storeroom. As part of that effort, I came across a stash of yellowing public information materials: things like old pamphlets and brochures dating back to the early days of the program.
There were also some dusty 16mm movie reels that contained public information films intended to be used as educational materials to supplement speeches or other presentations that SSA public affairs employees would make to various community groups and organizations.
Luckily, I also found an old movie projector in this storeroom. I was pleased with that because I really wanted to watch some of the old PR films, mostly because of a fascination I had developed early in my career with the history of Social Security. But I must admit I also figured I might get a bit of a chuckle out of the old-fashioned film techniques and maybe the hackneyed messages the movies would contain.
I wasn't disappointed in either case when I watched a film called "Welcome to Medicare — 1966." It was a movie produced by SSA to introduce the American people to the then brand-new Medicare program. It told the story of an aging farm couple from Iowa. The husband, probably in his late 60s, had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. After learning that her husband would be OK, but would require extensive hospitalization that quickly used up what little health insurance they had, there was a scene in which his wife was talking to the doctors. She said something like this: "I want you to make sure Elmer gets the best care possible. And don't worry, I'm going to go home and sell the farm so that we will be able to pay all of these hospital expenses."
And then we got to the Medicare pitch. One of the doctors tells her: "Oh you won't have to concern yourself with that, Mildred, for you see, the government has a brand new program called Medicare, and it's going to pay most of Elmer's bills. Why, you'll just have to pay a small deductible out of your own pocket, and that's all. So you'll be able to keep the farm, and once we get Elmer up and around again, he can go back to raising those fine hogs of his." Mildred had the last line in the movie: "Thank God for the government and this wonderful new Medicare program!" Fade to black.
And it just so happened that the very evening following my storeroom cleaning stint and viewing the old Medicare movie, I was watching TV at home with my wife. A commercial came on promoting a Medicare supplement plan. It featured several obviously well-to-do men playing golf. As a guy was getting ready to putt, one of his colleagues asked about his recent gall bladder surgery. "Oh, I'm doing just great," he said, "but I tell you, I'm kind of ticked off because that darn government Medicare program stiffed me with part of the bill. Why, I had to pay $100 out of my own pocket!" And that led to a pitch from one of the other golfers for the Medicare supplement plan that would have picked up those extra expenses not paid by Medicare.
I know both the old movie and the TV commercial I watched were fiction. But I think their messages did reflect the tenor of the times. And here is what struck me. I was amazed by how people's expectations of their government had changed so dramatically in just 10 years. In 1965, we had a woman who was willing to sell the farm in order to pay her husband's hospital bill. And 10 years later, we had a rich guy on a golf course griping because the government was forcing him to cough up a measly hundred bucks out of his own pocket to pay for his hospital stay!
And contrast that corny pro-government Medicare movie message with today's ever-so-cynical anti-government, anti-"Obamacare" mood that envelops this country. It seems to me that many folks want all the inexpensive government health care they can get, as long as they don't have to help out the other guy.
We sure are a wacky — some might say hypocritical — people when it comes to government-sponsored health care in this country!