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Finances


Click on the headline to read the full article.

01.07.14

 Scam Alerts

11.13.12

 Stop Medicare Fraud

06.22.10

 Get wise to scams!

10.13.09

 Squirreling it away

 

LIHEAP deadline extended to April 18


PA residents who are struggling to pay home heating bills can still apply for financial help through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The federally funded program was slated to end April 4, but has been extended through April 18. “Pennsylvania has had a difficult winter, and programs like LIHEAP have helped our most vulnerable households to endure the cold temperatures,” Governor Corbett said.

The extension gives residents more time to apply for home heating assistance, so they can keep warm for the remainder of the season. Cash grants are based on household income, family size, type of heating fuel and region. Applicants must provide proof of income and household size, as well as a recent bill or statement from the fuel provider verifying customer status and type of fuel used. Income eligibility guidelines for the 2013-14 LIHEAP season are set at 150% percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which is $17,235 for one person or $23,265 for two (add $6,030 to the income limit for each additional person in the household). To apply  for LIHEAP, go to www.compass.state.pa.us or in person at county assistance offices. For questions, call 1-866-857-7095.
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Senior real estate tax freeze available


March 31 Deadline j0290292.png

The Philadelphia Department of Revenue has extended the deadline to apply for the Low Income Senior Citizen Real Estate Freeze program until March 31.

Under the program, the City will “freeze” the applicant’s real estate tax for the calendar year in which the taxes are due. For those who apply before the March 31 deadline, they will pay the same tax amount in 2014 that they paid in 2013.


If the homeowner’s property assessment or the tax rate changes, their taxes will not increase. If the tax liability decreases (either due to a rate decrease or a lower assessment), the tax due will be lowered to the new amount. 

To qualify for the program, applicants (or the applicant’s spouse who lives in the same household) must be 65 years or older; or 50 years old and the widow or widower of someone who was at least 65 years old at their time of death. In addition, the total annual household income must be $23,500 or less for a single person; $31,500 or less for a married couple.

Each applicant should provide proof of household income, age, the location of the property and the tax bill or receipt for the real estate taxes owed. Only one taxpayer per household will be entitled to the tax forgiveness. Once approved, homeowners do not have to apply again.

Applications can be obtained by visiting the Revenue Department website at www.phila.gov/revenue or by calling 215-686-6442.The Low-Income Senior Citizen Real Estate Tax Freeze is one of several tax assistance programs available to Philadelphia residents. For more information visit the website at www.phila.gov/revenue or call 215-686-6442.
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Free financial resources, tax help


By Alicia M. Colombo
taxes-171.JPG
A new city-wide initiative provides free individual financial counseling for Philadelphia residents, age 18 and older, regardless of income. Through a partnership between Clarifi and the City of Philadelphia, seven Financial Empowerment Centers (FECs) are located throughout the city. 

Professional counselors are trained to provide specialized advice on reducing fees or interest rates, negotiating with debt collectors, repairing damaged credit, finding affordable bank accounts, assisting with medical debt, creating a workable budget, and other issues.

Timely tax help
Tax preparation services are available at the FECs through a partnership with the Campaign for Working Families. To schedule a free appointment for financial counseling, call 1-855-FIN-PHIL (346-7445); e-mail financial.empowerment@phila.gov; or go to phillyfec.org.

Senior concerns
Seniors often have unique financial challenges. They may be victims of financial abuse, reverse mortgage schemes, or sudden debt from co-signing loans for relatives.

"Philadelphia has a vibrant aging community, but many are struggling financially,” said Carey Morgan, program director of Philadelphia’s FECs. 

“Cuts to public benefits, financial scams and increased costs have really hurt seniors financially. The Financial Empowerment Centers are a trusted source of help. We can help seniors make ends meet and relieve some of that worry."

Free online resources are also available, including a free annual credit reports; resource locator tool for senior care; free or low-cost savings and checking accounts in Philadelphia; and foreclosure prevention programs. 

Following are locations and hours of the Philadelphia Financial Empowerment Centers:

Congreso Headquarters
216 W. Somerset St.
Hours: Mon. & Wed., 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.; Tues., 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.; Thurs., 8 a.m. - 7 p.m.; Fri., 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Municipal Services Building, Concourse Level
1401 John F. Kennedy Blvd.
Hours: Mon. - Thurs., 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.; Fri., 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Community College of Philadelphia, Center for Business and Industry
1751 Callowhill St.
Hours: Mon. & Wed., 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Community Legal Services
1410 W. Erie Ave.
Hours: Mon., 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.; Thurs. & Fri., 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Germantown Life Enrichment Center
5722 Greene St.
Hours: Tues. & Thurs., 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
People’s Emergency Center
Families First Building, 3939 Warren St.
Hours: Tues., Wed., & Thurs., 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.; Fri., 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.
The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians
1617 John F. Kennedy Blvd.
Hours: Tues., 11 a.m. - 8 p.m.; Fri., 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.

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Who Do You Want to Inherit Your Things?


Alicia M. Colombo
After you are gone, items that you once cherished can provide lasting mementoes for loved ones. To ensure that your possessions and assets will be distributed the way you wish, without imposing unnecessary delays or undue stress on your loved ones, it’s important to have a will.


Any person over age 21 who has appropriate mental capacity can – and probably should – have a last will and testament. This document provides direction for the distribution of all monetary or tangible items, including your house, furnishings, jewelry, other personal property, stocks and bank accounts. Any items that you leave in your will must be owned by you. In the case of your house, your name must be on the deed.

Your will also designates an executor to handle the administration of your estate. The executor will be the person to divide up your assets among your beneficiaries, as stated in your will. The executor need not be a family member; it can be anyone you trust.        

“So many people are confused about the process of writing a will. It is really important to discuss your needs with a professional and not try to do it yourself. Even though a hand-written will is legal in Pennsylvania, you should discuss your individual situation with a lawyer,” said Debra Kroll, associate clinical professor of law at Temple University Beasley School of Law.

Choosing your beneficiaries

Kroll helps many low-income older adults with their wills through Temple’s Elderly Law Project, and said that, although they don’t have a lot of property or money, they still want to make bequests. “Leaving small, personal items to loved ones becomes their legacy. If you have a granddaughter who loves to cook, you could leave your kitchen supplies and cookbooks to her,” said Kroll.

Your decisions to leave certain items to family members may be based on their hobbies, interests or lifestyle. “It’s really up to you to decide,” said Kroll. “Some people leave items to the relative who will cherish them the most or who will take care of them the best.”

“Consider all of the people who you want to have your property when you pass,” said Adam P. Rifkind, Esq., a private attorney in Folcroft, Pa. who makes house calls to help older adults with legal matters. 

“Most of my married clients want their wills written together, and they usually leave everything to each other. This can create stress among family members, especially when there are children of previous relationships. In that case, it may be better to leave specific items or a percentage of your estate to each of your children,” said Rifkind.

Another option is giving some of your personal effects, such as jewelry or collectibles, to your loved ones while you are still alive. “Seeing a family member enjoy your personal belonging can create a very special memory between people,” said Kroll. However, in some families, doing so could cause an argument or animosity. So, this is a personal decision that only you can make. If you feel you can divide up your jewelry among your daughters and granddaughters without causing a feud, you may wish to do so.

“These decisions are very circumstance-specific,” said Rifkind.  “You have to know your family. If you have a son who lives far away and your other children all live close, you may wish to give some of your valuable items to him so everything isn’t taken before he has a chance to get there.”  
It is recommended that you allow for a contingent beneficiary, who will inherit your property if your original beneficiary dies before you.

Once you have finalized a will, Rifkind cautions against later deciding to amend it yourself. “Any writing on the will after it is signed may change its meaning in unintended ways,” said Rifkind. You should keep a copy of your will in a safe location, where it will be easily found after you die. Depending on your circumstances, you may want to give a copy to your executor. Review your will from time to time, especially after life-changing events, such as a marriage, divorce, birth or death. You should maintain an ongoing relationship with your executor, and update your will if you lose touch with this person. If you need to change or update your will, consult a lawyer to have it professionally amended.

Unintended consequences
 
You may decide to sell some of your valuable items, such as artwork or antiques, if you discover that family members do not want them. However, before you give away or sell any valuable items, such as money, real estate or vehicles, it’s important to consider your future needs. The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) will consider any asset that was transferred, sold or given away within the past five years, if you apply for long-term care through Medical Assistance. If full market value was not received for an asset or income, a period of ineligibility for long-term-care is established, according to DPW’s website.
If you have items stored in a storage facility or safe deposit box, you should tell your executor or family about it. “Many of those storage vault auction shows on television are selling items that were owned by people who are now deceased, because no one knew they were there,” said Rifkind.

Some items that do not go into a will are assets that pass outside of probate, by transferring automatically to a designated beneficiary upon death. These items can include a retirement account, life insurance policy or joint bank account. It is important to tell your beneficiaries about these items.  They will be required to show a copy of the death certificate. “This is a way of getting the item or cash quickly to the person it’s supposed to go to. A friend who didn’t have many assets made each of his four children the beneficiary on a different life insurance policy,” said Rifkind. It is important to review your choice of beneficiaries periodically, and update them if circumstances change. If a husband designates his wife as a beneficiary but she dies before he does, the distribution of that asset can be unnecessarily complicated.

When there is no will

“You are not required to have a will. But if you want to leave certain possessions or designate a specific percentage of your monetary assets to certain people, it is the only way to do it. A will also makes things a lot easier for your survivors,” said Kroll.  A will can provide that the executor does not have to pay a bond, which saves the estate money.

If you die without a will, the laws of “intestate succession” will determine who inherits your property. The process can be slow and whoever initiates it must pay a bond to receive letters of administration, which are required in order to administer the estate. The administrator does not have to be next of kin, but often is. Beneficiaries are determined by your relationship to your survivors in this order: spouse, biological children, parents, siblings, biological grandchildren, and nieces/nephews. In some cases, your property would be divided between your spouse and children or your spouse and parents, depending on who outlives you.

Make your wishes known
 
Instructions for burial or funeral arrangements probably should not be put into your will, because of timing. “Wills are often not read until weeks after a person’s burial. Make sure the people who will be taking care of your burial know your wishes. This is especially true for people of Muslim and Jewish faith, who need to be buried quickly for religious reasons,” said Rifkind. 

Inheritance tax
Pennsylvania imposes an inheritance tax on anyone except an individual’s surviving spouse or child under age 21. The amount of the tax is based on a percentage of the value of the estate, depending on the relationship of the heir to the deceased. An adult child or grandchild will pay 4.5%, a sibling owes 12%, and other relatives or non-relatives will be charged 15%.
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Online users: Consider your digital legacy


By Alicia M. Colombo


An estimated 30 million Facebook profiles belong to dead people, and this number is projected to increase by 3 million annually. Active social media users should consider how they want their virtual accounts to be handled after they pass away. 


The U.S. Government’s official web portal, www.usa.gov, suggests creating an online assets statement or Social Media Will to indicate how you would like your online identity to be handled once you are gone. You should appoint someone who is both trustworthy and tech-savvy to be your digital executor. This person will be responsible for handling your e-mail addresses, social media profiles, and blogs in accordance with your wishes. 

Think about whether you would like the digital executor to send an e-mail message or post a status update alerting online friends of your passing. If this message should be directed only to certain people, provide the digital executor with a list of names and e-mail addresses, as well as a personal message from you if desired.

Writing a Social Media Will
 
USA.gov recommends taking these steps to write a Social Media Will: 

1) Review the privacy policies and the terms and conditions of each website where you have a presence.

2) State how you would like your profiles to be handled. You may want to completely delete your profile or keep it up for friends and family to visit. Some sites allow users to create a memorial profile where other users can still see your profile, but can’t post anything new. 

3) Give the digital executor a document that lists all the websites where you have a profile, along with your usernames and passwords. Be sure to update this list regularly as your online passwords should be changed regularly to discourage identity theft and unauthorized access. 

4) Stipulate in your will that the digital executor should have a copy of your death certificate, as it may be needed for proof to take any actions on your behalf. 

5) Check to see if the social media platforms have account management features to let you proactively determine what happens to your accounts after you die. For example, Google's Inactive Account Manager allows you to manage how you want your online content to be saved or deleted. This feature also lets you give permission for your family or close friends to access the content you saved on Google websites after you die. 

In addition to social media and e-mail accounts, you should make a digital assets register that lists everything you access online. According to the website www.about.com, it is recommended that you take up to six months to compile this list, since over time you may remember websites or accounts that you don’t use often. The list should include digital music, book, and movie files that you’ve purchased; as well as anything that has significant sentimental value, such as your wedding video and family photos. 

Think about online payments that you make for doctors or utilities, and account information for applications (apps) on your smart phone, e-reader, tablet, gaming system or laptop. When keeping a record of accounts, include the company name, website address (URL), and login information of every online account you access. Login information can include username, password, e-mail, and/or security questions. Even if the purpose of the account is obvious to you, include a brief description of the service provided. Your digital executor may not know that TD Bank is your mortgage company, for instance.

Once you have created a record of all your online account information, treat it like any other highly confidential information and take precautions to keep it secure. 

Even though the laws governing online assets are still developing on both the state and federal levels, the more explicitly you express your desires/intentions in writing, the greater the chance your digital executor will be able to access your digital assets and online accounts on your behalf. Make sure you reference your Social Media Will and/or digital asset register in your will. Do not include the actual list in your will, since online account passwords change and you may continually add new accounts.

Digital estate planning resources
The Digital Beyond maintains an extensive list of online services to help plan your digital death (or afterlife) and memorialize loved ones. Services include posthumous e-mail services, online memorials, and storage of digital assets so they can be passed on. The list is available at www.thedigitalbeyond.com/online-services-list.

USA.gov provides a free downloadable Microsoft Excel template for creating a Social Media Will at www.usa.gov/topics/consumer/social-media-will.xls.
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Scam Alerts


from the Better Business Bureau and Inernal Revenue Service
Scammers posing as Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agents or as representatives of your credit card company are trying to trick people into providing personal information. Some are taking advantage of the recent Target credit card data breach.

Beware of phone calls, text messages and emails asking you to"verify" your name, address, social security number, credit card number, and other information. Do not provide this information.


Credit card fraud
Scammers are taking advantage of the data breach that compromised Target customers' credit and debit card information. Watch for con artists using this highly public event to fool consumers into sharing their credit card and/or personal information.

 
How the Scam Works:
 
You receive a text message, which claims to be from your credit card company. It says your card has been blocked in response to fraudulent activity following the recent data breach. The message asks you to call a phone number to verify your account information. Of course, the text message is just a con to get you to share your card number and other info.
 
As usual, this scam has many forms. Scammers have been contacting people through email, text messages and phone calls. In another version, scammers call and claim to represent Target. They ask consumers to "verify" their name, address, social security and other information to supposedly check whether it was comprised in the breach. Whatever the guise, the scammers are always after your credit card number or other personal information.

 
How to Spot This Scam:
 
The best way to protect yourself is to identify the warning signs:
• Check Target's website: Given the number of scams surrounding the data breach, Target has posted all their official communications at Target.com/paymentcardresponse. Check any emails or texts you receive claiming to be from Target against the official list.
• Don't believe what you see. Scammers use technology to make emails and phone calls appear to come from a reputable source. Just because it looks credible does not mean it's safe.
• Be wary of unexpected emails that contain links or attachments. As always, do not click on links or open the files in unfamiliar emails.
• Watch for bad grammar: Typo-filled text messages and emails are usually a dead giveaway that it's from a scammer, not a corporation.
 
For More Information
 
For more advice on dealing with the data breach, read the Better Business Bureau's (BBB) suggestions for Target customers. Also, see Target's website for updates and answers to common questions.
  
For more information about scams, see BBB Scam Stopper. 

Scams targeting taxpayers

Scammers posing as IRS agents are calling consumers to demand payment of taxes that are not owed. Fraudulent calls have been reported in nearly every state.

Callers often threaten arrest, driver's license revocation or deportation if prompt payment is not made. Scammers often use common names to identify themselves and may be able to recite the last four digits of a person's Social Security number.

Caller ID display may even look like the IRS toll-free number and the call may feature background noise, similar to a call center.

What to do
If you think you owe taxes, call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 to verify. If you have not received a tax bill and have no other reason to think you owe taxes, call 1-800-366-4484 to report the call.

DO NOT give out personal information, a credit card number, or send money via a pre-paid debit card or wire transfer. The IRS does not contact taxpayers to request personal information, either by phone, text or social media, to request personal information such as PINS or passwords to credit card or bank accounts.
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When to turn off the lights?


By Linda L. Riley

electricity-170.jpg 
The question of when to turn off the lights to save energy might seem like common sense, but in fact, the answer depends on what kind of lights you have. Making smart choices about this, and some other basic household practices, can help you save money on your electric bill. 

The U.S. Department of Energy’s website at www.energy.gov offers the following tips:

Traditional incandescent lights should be turned off whenever they are not needed, because they are the least efficient type of lighting; 90% of the energy they use is given off as heat, and only about 10% results in light. Turning lights off will also keep a room cooler, an extra benefit in the summer.

The newer compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs, use less energy when they are on. Additionally, switching a CFL on and off shortens its life. So, if you will be out of a room for 15 minutes or less, leave it on. Switching to Energy Star qualified CFLs throughout your house will cut energy consumption for lighting by about 25%.

Beware the vampires
Often, appliances and electronic equipment continue to draw a small amount of power even when they are switched off. Computers, DVD players, TVs, stereos, coffee makers and other kitchen appliances drain electricity, sometimes dubbed "vampire" loads, when they are not in use.  


Even when a laptop computer is not plugged in, if the AC adapter is plugged in, the transformer in it continues to draw power. The remedy is simple: unplug appliances and electronic equipment when they are not in use; or connect them to a power strip and turn off the switch. 

To power cordless phones, digital cameras, and other equipment, use rechargeable batteries, which are more cost effective than disposable batteries. 

Using the power management settings on computers and monitors can also save energy. Use automatic switching to sleep mode or simply turn it off. If you currently have a desktop personal computer, when it’s time to replace it, consider buying a laptop, as they use much less energy. (Contrary to popular belief, screen savers do not reduce a monitor's energy use; and equipment does not last longer if it is never turned off.)

Not too hot, not too cold is just right 
Water heating is the second highest energy expense in your home, and accounts for about 18% of your utility bill. Setting the temperature of the hot water heater lower can produce savings on water used for dishwashing, showering or bathing, and washing clothes. 

Check your dishwasher’s manual for the manufacturer's recommendations on water temperature; with many you can set the water heater in your home to 120° F.  

Other ways to save:
*Be sure the dishwasher or washing machine is full (not overloaded) when you run it.
*Let your dishes air dry; if you don't have an automatic air-dry switch, turn off the control knob after the final rinse and prop the door open slightly so the dishes will dry faster.
*Hang clothes to dry whenever possible.
Controlling the temperature of your refrigerator can also help; the fresh food compartment should be between 37° to 40°F, and the freezer section should be at 5° F.  If you have a separate freezer for long-term storage, it should be kept at 0° F. You can check the refrigerator temperature by placing an appliance thermometer in a glass of water in the center of the refrigerator. Read it after 24 hours. Check the freezer temperature by placing a thermometer between frozen packages. Read it after 24 hours.
If the refrigerator door seals are not airtight, this makes it work too hard to keep things cool inside.  Test them by closing the door over a piece of paper or a dollar bill so it is half in and half out of the refrigerator. If you can pull the paper or bill out easily, the latch may need adjustment, the seal may need replacing, or you may want to consider buying a new unit. Other tips:
• Cover liquids and wrap foods stored in the refrigerator. Uncovered foods release moisture and make the compressor work harder.
• Regularly defrost manual-defrost freezers and refrigerators; frost buildup decreases the energy efficiency of the unit. Don't allow frost to build up more than one-quarter of an inch.

Energy-efficient cooking
• Use the smallest appliance possible for cooking. A toaster or convection oven uses one-third to one-half as much energy as a full-sized oven.  
• Keep range-top burners and reflectors clean; they will reflect the heat better, and you will save energy.
• Use a covered kettle or pan, or electric kettle to boil water; it's faster and uses less energy.
• Match the size of the pan to the heating element.

Tips for buying appliances
Shopping for a major appliance can be daunting, as you consider the many features and options available. Here are a few insights from the Department of Energy that may help narrow down your choices:
• Top-freezer refrigerator models are more energy efficient than side-by-side models, and features like icemakers and water dispensers, while convenient, do use more energy. 
• When shopping for a natural gas oven or range, look for one with an automatic, electric ignition system, which saves gas since a pilot light is not burning continuously.
• Some clothes dryers have moisture sensors that automatically shut off the machine when clothes are dry, saving energy.
When buying any new appliance, read the Energy Guide sticker, which will give you information on the estimated yearly operating cost, so you can compare different models. 

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Energy assistance available


By Linda L. Riley
Yesterday's light snow flurries and temperatures dipping into the 30s were a sharp reminder that winter is approaching, and with it, the home heating season.  Home heating costs can put a strain on already-stretched resources, as winter closes in.

There is some assistance available with energy costs for low-income renters and homeowners. There are also resources to help with weatherization, which, as Jerry Bennett, program director with the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA) said, “is a much better solution, because it’s permanent.”

Energy assistance and more
The federally-funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is one of the primary resources for assistance with energy bills. To qualify for LIHEAP this winter, an individual can have an income of no more than $17,235 annually; for each additional person (to a maximum of 10 people) in the home, the maximum income level is increased by $6,030. This represents 150% of the federal poverty guideline.

Both renters and homeowners can qualify for LIHEAP. Renters whose heat is included in the rent can qualify if a specific portion of that rent is used to cover heating costs.

There are several different programs under the LIHEAP umbrella:

• The LIHEAP cash benefit provides up to $1,000 to cover electric, gas or oil – the amount of the benefit depends on which of the three it will be used to pay for, and certain other variables.
• LIHEAP Crisis is for people who have an immediate need, for example, if a household is completely out of oil or if the utility is about to be, or has been, shut off.
• Crisis Interface Project addresses emergency situations including heating system repair or replacement; pipe-thawing services; and repair of broken windows.

LIHEAP will begin accepting applications on Nov. 4, and Bennett said that it is important to apply early for the cash benefit. “There can be several weeks delay,” he said. (See related story, above, for contact information.)Utility company programs
 In addition to LIHEAP, each of the utility companies also has programs to assist low-income customers.
 PECO has a CAP Rate program which provides discounts for low-income customers. To qualify, monthly household income cannot exceed $1,362 for one person, or $1,839 for two people. For each additional person in the household, add $477 to determine maximum income eligibility.

There is also a program to assist people who have a temporary hardship which is preventing them from paying their utility bill. For information, call 1-800-744-7040 or visit the website at www.peco.com.

PGW’s Customer Responsibility Program offers discounted rates on a sliding scale for customers whose household income is at or below 150% of the federal poverty level.  Like PECO, PGW also has a special program for those who have a temporary hardship or emergency. For information, call 215-684-6100 or visit the web site at http://www.pgworks.com and assistance.

ECA has 14 Neighborhood Energy Centers (NEC) located throughout the city where counselors are available to help low-income Philadelphians budget, determine eligibility and apply for assistance.  To locate one, call 215-988-0929.

The agency also administers a weatherization program which is funded by the Department of Energy and LIHEAP, Bennett said. To qualify for this program, income must be at or below 200% of poverty. The first step is an energy audit to determine where improvements can be made, Bennett said. Weather stripping, caulking, wrapping the hot water pipes and heater, and adding insulation to the house are among the techniques to make a house more energy efficient.  ECA can also help individuals whose utilities are about to be shut off. “We intervene on behalf of clients and negotiate with energy companies,” Bennett said.

Improving energy efficiency

Homeowners who do not qualify as low-income can have an energy audit done by ECA at a reduced rate, subsidized in part by the Department of Energy. ECA can also provide assistance throughout the process of locating and selecting a reliable contractor, and applying for low-interest financing if needed.
 PECO also provides low-cost energy assessments (which are less comprehensive than an energy audit) and, for electric heat customers, energy audits. For information, call 1-888-573-2672.

Rebates and tax credits are available for those who install a new, high-efficiency furnace or hot water heater, or switch from oil heat to natural gas. Depending on the appliance, rebates from PECO and PGW range from $25 to $2,000. Federal tax credits range from $50 to $500 on approved heating systems, insulation, roofs, windows and doors. For details, go to the utility company websites: www.peco.com or www.pgworks.com.
 Information on energy audits, tax credits and rebates is also available from ECA by calling 215-609-1052.

Emergency aid
 The Utility Emergency Services Fund (UESF) provides assistance to those who have received a shut-off notice for water, gas or electricity, or whose utilities have been shut off. To be eligible, the household income cannot be greater than 175% of the federal poverty level, (maximum monthly income of $1,629 for one person), and the household must already have applied for LIHEAP and Crisis grants. The maximum amount of assistance is $1,500, depending on the utility involved; and eligibility is limited to once every 24 months. For information or to find one of the 17 UESF intake sites located throughout the city, call 215-972-5170 or visit www.uesfacts.org.

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Help for low-income residents


snowflakes.jpg
Making your way through the maze of programs, eligibility requirements and applications can be a daunting experience.  Several organizations provide ways to apply for multiple benefits through a single process.

BenePhilly, an enrollment center of the Benefits Data Trust
Who:
Philadelphia residents age 60 and older with incomes of $40,000 or less
What: Benefits Outreach Specialists in a telephone call center are available to help you determine eligibility and apply for a variety of benefits, including LIHEAP; PACE/PACENET; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/Food Stamps); and Medicare Extra Help.
How: Call 1-800-236-2194

Energy Coordinating Agency
Who:
Low-income Philadelphia residents
What: Counselors at 14 Neighborhood Energy Centers provide or arrange for a variety of services:
• Energy audits and weatherization assistance for homeowners with incomes at or under 200% of the federal poverty guidelines
• Heater Hotline – repair or replacement of heating systems for the single family, owner-occupied homes of Philadelphians age 65 and older, with incomes at or under 150% of the federal poverty guidelines
• Assistance with LIHEAP applications
• Budget counseling
• Intervention and negotiation on behalf of individuals whose utilities have been, or about to be, shut off
How: Call 215-988-0929 to locate a Neighborhood Energy Center in your area.

Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW)
Who:
  Low-income Pennsylvania residents
What: Apply for benefits, including Medical Assistance; LIHEAP; and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/Food Stamps)
How: Online at www.compass.state.pa.us
At local County Assistance Offices; to locate one near you, call 1-800-692-7462 or
215-560-7226
Apply for LIHEAP in person: 1348 W. Sedgley Ave., Philadelphia, Pa., 19132
LIHEAP Hotline: 215-560-1583  
 
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Free legal help for LGBT older adults


Individual assistance offered
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Estate and life-care planning are often more complicated for LGBT people, in large part because many states, including Pennsylvania, do not recognize marriages between same-sex couples.

A free workshop,  individualized counseling on legal matters and preparation of legal documents will be offered on Saturday, Sept. 28 at the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce Street.

Preregistration is required, and participants will be asked to complete a questionnaire in advance so that their documents can be prepared quickly.

Finalize documents that day
"In essence, they will come to the Clinic with all of the information that they need to complete the documents and the attorney simply takes that info and outputs it in legal form," said Elder Initiative spokesman Ed Bomba.

These can include a will, living will, financial and medical powers of attorney, and disposition of remains. The documents will be completed, signed and notarized at the time, according to Bomba.

"LGBT people face specific and unique legal issues," said Heshie Zinman, chair of the LGBT Elder Initiative which is sponsoring the workshop. It's estimated that more than 30 pecent of LGBT older adults do not have appropriate legal documentation in place, Zinman said.


Without legally executed documentation, the rights to inheritance, medical decision-making, and other end-of-life matters are not guaranteed. At the workshop, attorneys will outline what documents are needed, and will discuss the impact of the Supreme Court's recent decision ruling the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

The LGBTEI Legal Clinic will begin at 11 a.m. , Saturday, September 28. Lunch will be provided. Preregistration is required; please email your name and telephone number to: info@lgbtei.org or call 267-546-3448.
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Time to apply for property tax breaks


If you own a home in Philadelphia, and live in your home as your primary residence, you are eligible for a Homestead Exemption; applications are due by Sept. 13.

Some seniors may also be eligible for a Low-Income Senior Citizen Tax Freeze, which can keep real estate taxes from increasing, no matter what changes in assessments or tax rates take place in the future. The deadline to apply for the tax freeze is Oct. 15.


Homestead Exemption
If you own a home in Philadelphia which is your primary residence, your property tax assessment could be lowered by up to $402, saving you money on your property taxes in 2014 – and for many years to come. Once an application has been approved, homeowners do not need to reapply unless the deed to the home changes.
 Homeowners can apply for the Homestead Exemption over the phone (in any language) – or check the status of an application if they have already applied – by calling 215-686-9200, the Office of Property Assessment's Homestead and AVI Hotline. The deadline to apply is September 13, to have this applied to your 2014 property taxes.

Low-Income Senior Citizen Tax Freeze
  Some seniors may also be eligible for a Low-Income Senior Citizen Tax Freeze, which can keep real estate taxes from increasing, no matter what changes in assessments or tax rates take place in the future.  To be eligible, you must be age 65 or older; or have a spouse living in your household age 65+; or be age 50+ and the widow or widower of a person who was age 65 or older. You must own your home, and have income of $23,500 or less for a single person and $31,500 or less for a married couple. The deadline to apply for the Tax Freeze is October 15. To take advantage of this program or to get more information, please call the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Revenue at 215-686-6442.

  Separate applications must be made for each of these tax breaks.
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Free help with taxes


By Marcia Z. Siegal
For those who haven’t filed their tax returns yet, take heart; there are tax preparers ready, willing and able to help. Some services are free for people of low or moderate income; another is free for older adults only.   

The AARP Foundation Tax-Aide Program offers free individualized tax preparation at locations throughout Philadelphia for people 50+. To be eligible, you must have an annual household income no greater than $60,000. The program is staffed by volunteers trained by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). For more information, including preparation sites, call the AARP Philadelphia Office at 1-866-389-5654 or 267-825-9921; or visit www.aarp.org and type “Tax Aide” in the search function.


The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) provides IRS-trained volunteers to prepare and file tax returns for free. There are community sites available throughout Philadelphia.  Certified volunteers prepare returns at no cost for taxpayers of low to moderate income. To find a VITA site near you, call the IRS at 1-800-906-9887 or visit www.irs.gov and type “VITA” in the search function.

Campaign for Working Families provides free tax preparation by IRS-trained volunteers at sites throughout the city for individuals with less than $20,000 annual income and couples/families with less than $51,000 income. For more information, including tax preparation sites, call Philadelphia’s information and referral line, 311, or visit www.cwfphilly.org.

I-CAN! E-File is a free, web-based tax preparation program that can help you complete and file your tax returns online, on your own. I-Can! E-File is available at www.icanefile.org.
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Get your FREE benefits checkup


By Marcia Z. Siegal

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Millions of people who are eligible for public benefits to help with the costs of food, medicine, shelter and utilities do not know it, or are intimidated by the application process. For example, people who receive help from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) or who are enrolled in Medicaid or the Medicare Savings Programs are likely eligible for food stamps, but may not yet be taking advantage of the benefit.

Benefits Data Trust (BDT) and its local outreach project, the BenePhilly Enrollment Center, aim to change that. A free resource for Philadelphians who are 60 and older, BDT’s benefits outreach specialists callers for benefit eligibility. Once the information and documentation is in order, staff can submit callers’ applications electronically.

To find out if you qualify for benefits you are not currently receiving, and for help applying, call 1-800-236-2194 or visit www.bdtrust.org.  Following are the five benefits programs for which BDT provides screening and enrollment assistance. Contact information for the individual programs is also included below.

Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP): Helps eligible low-income families pay their heating bills. LIHEAP offers assistance in the form of a cash grant, sent directly to the utility company, or a crisis grant for households in immediate danger of being without heat. Information is available by calling your local county assistance office or the LIHEAP hotline at 1-866-857-7095.

Low-Income Subsidy (Extra Help) program for Medicare prescription drug plan costs: Helps eligible low-income individuals with the costs of Medicare prescription drug plan coverage. Assistance with monthly premiums, annual deductibles, and prescription co-payments – related to a Medicare prescription drug plan. For more information, call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 or visit www.socialsecurity.gov/extrahelp. You may also contact APPRISE, the state program offering free health insurance counseling for older adults,  at 1-800-783-7067.

PACE/PACENET (PA Prescription Assistance Program): Prescription assistance programs offering low-cost prescription medication to qualified Pennsylvania residents, age 65 and older. For more information call 1-800-225-7223 or visit www.aging.state.pa.us and click on “PACE and Affordable Medications” or contact APPRISE at 1-800-783-7067.

Pennsylvania Property Tax & Rent Rebate: Benefits eligible Pennsylvanians age 65 and older; widows and widowers age 50 and older; and people with disabilities age 18 and older. For more information, visit www.revenue.state.pa.us and click on “Incentives, Credits and Programs” or call 1-888-222-9190.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps): A food nutrition assistance program that helps qualified low-income Americans purchase the food they needFor more information, visit www.nutrition.gov and click on “Food Assistance Programs” or call 1-800-692-7462. You can also contact the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger at 215-769-0659 or visit www.hungercoalition.org.
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Less red tape for veterans



The Department of Veterans Affairs is streamlining the pension process, by eliminating the requirement that veterans complete an annual Eligibility Verification Report (EVR) to ensure benefits are continued.

The VA will implement a new process for confirming eligibility for benefits, and staff that had been responsible for processing the old form will instead focus on eliminating the backlog of compensation claims.

Historically, beneficiaries have been required to complete an EVR each year to ensure their pension benefits continued. Under the new initiative, VA will work with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) to verify continued eligibility for pension benefits.


"By working together, we have cut red tape for Veterans and will help ensure these brave men and women get the benefits they have earned and deserve,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki.

VA estimates it would have sent nearly 150,000 EVRs to beneficiaries in January 2013. Eliminating these annual reports reduces the burden on Veterans, their families, and survivors because they will not have to return these routine reports to VA each year in order to avoid suspension of benefits.  It also allows VA to redirect more than 100 employees that usually process EVRs to work on eliminating the claims backlog.

"Having already instituted an expedited process that enables wounded warriors to quickly access Social Security disability benefits, we are proud to work with our federal partners on an automated process that will make it much easier for qualified Veterans to maintain their VA benefits from year to year," said Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security.

"The IRS is taking new steps to provide critical data to help speed the benefits process for the nation's Veterans and Veterans Affairs," said Beth Tucker, IRS Deputy Commissioner for Operations Support. "The IRS is pleased to be part of a partnership with VA and SSA that will provide needed data quickly and effectively to move this effort forward."

All beneficiaries currently receiving VA pension benefits will receive a letter from VA explaining these changes and providing instructions on how to continue to submit their unreimbursed medical expenses.

More information about VA pension benefits is available at http://www.benefits.va.gov/pension and other VA benefit programs on the joint Department of Defense—VA web portal eBenefits at www.ebenefits.va.gov
 
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Elder financial abuse


By Marcia Z. Siegal
Financial abuse affects at least 5 million older adults each year; but, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), only one  in 25 cases is reported. The problem is especially acute in Philadelphia, which has the highest proportion of seniors of the nation's 10 largest New Image.JPGcities.

This form of abuse involves the illegal or improper use of an elder's funds, property, or assets, according to the NCEA. Examples include cashing checks without authorization or permission; forging an older person's signature; misusing or stealing money or possessions; coercing or deceiving an older person into signing any document (e.g., contracts or will); and the improper use of conservatorship, guardianship, or power of attorney.
Senior citizens in the United States lose a minimum of $2.9 billion each year to financial exploitation, according to the 2011 MetLife Study of Elder Financial Abuse. The study was produced by the MetLife Mature Market Institute in collaboration with NCEA and the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The same group collaborated on a 2009 report: “Broken Trust: Elders, Family & Finances,” which found that family members and caregivers are the culprits in 55% of cases of financial elder abuse. In addition to the financial loss, “victims often experience long-term effects such as credit problems, health issues, depression, and a loss of independence,” that report stated.  

Older persons are especially vulnerable for a variety of reasons, according to Joseph Snyder, director of Older Adult Protective Services (OAPS) at Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA) and former president of the National Adult Protective Services Association. Many own their homes, have accumulated savings and other assets, and may be inclined to trust family members or caregivers; or may be dependent on them.
Loneliness, isolation and dementia can make them even more vulnerable, Snyder says.

In Philadelphia, all forms of elder abuse, including financial exploitation can be reported 24/7 to PCA’s Older Adult Protective Services by calling the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040

Visit www.stopseniorscams.org for more information about how to spot elder financial abuse, common scams and measures you can take to protect yourself or loved ones.
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Warning signs of abuse


Carlotta Bulls, financial exploitation specialist with Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, works closely with banks and law enforcement to investigate cases of suspected abuse.

“We look for a pattern,” she says. “If a person has a pattern of withdrawing $100 monthly from their ATM and now is suddenly making thousands of withdrawals, that could raise a red flag, for example. An exploiter might start with the ATM and later move on to getting credit cards in the consumer’s name, because financial abuse often escalates. It’s important to report suspected fraud as soon as possible to help stop it in its tracks.”

The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) offers these warning signs of possible financial exploitation:

•    Bills aren’t paid, and notices of eviction or discontinued utility services arrive.

•    There are unexplained withdrawals from bank accounts or transfers between accounts.

•    Bank statements stop coming.

•    Care isn’t commensurate with the size of the estate.

•    Personal property goes missing.

•    Signatures on checks or other documents look suspicious. (Check the handwriting against a sample from the elderly person.)

•    Either the older person or the caregiver gives strange or implausible explanations about financial transactions.

•    An increase in mail and credit offers may indicate that a caregiver or someone else is misusing the address to apply for loans and credit cards.


In Philadelphia, all forms of elder abuse, including financial exploitation can be reported 24/7 to PCA’s Older Adult Protective Services by calling the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040. For more information about how to protect yourself, and loved ones, visit www.stopseniorscams.org
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Banks on the front lines


By Linda L. Riley
In 2003, Joseph Snyder, director of Older Adult Protective Services at Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA) and Linda Mill, a certified fraud examiner, created a model training and investigative program which focused on training bank tellers to detect signs of financial exploitation of senior customers.  The program was piloted in Philadelphia at what was then Wachovia Bank.

In its four years of operation, “we stopped $2.2 million in fraud and helped protect $62.5 million in assets,” Snyder says. The program is now considered a national model.
 

In a report to Congress on elder financial exploitation last fall, the General Accounting Administration called for a federal plan to educate banks nationwide on how to identify and report possible elder financial exploitation, as part of a national strategy to combat elder financial abuse.

Taskforce Takes Aim

In 2010, the Philadelphia Financial Exploitation Prevention Taskforce was formed  to address financial exploitation of the elderly. PCA partnered with the city, with the support of the Mayor, District Attorney and Police Commissioner, to form a task force. The Philadelphia Financial Exploitation Prevention Taskforce strengthens collaboration in order to prevent, detect investigate, recover assets and prosecute financial elder abuse. It also trains law enforcement, social workers, banks and community agencies about elder financial abuse and works to raise awareness among seniors and the general community about recognizing and preventing elder financial abuse.  

New Federal Law

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 included provisions which, for the first time, address abuse, neglect and exploitation of the elderly on a federal level. The Elder Justice Act, included in that legislation, authorizes funding for state and local adult protective service programs to finance nearly 1,700 more investigators of elder abuse nationwide. It also provides for state demonstration grants to pilot new programs elder abuse prevention; creates a coordinating council to make recommendations on elder abuse prevention. Implementation of these provisions will require that Congress approve funding, which it has not yet done.
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Resources to keep your home safe and warm


By Linda L. Riley
More than 75% of Philadelphians age 60+ own their homes. If you are one of those 208,429 senior homeowners, you know the challenges you face in maintaining the heater, the roof, and other vital parts of the property which may be as old as you – or older.

Even if you’re renting, the cost of heating and lighting the home can strain your resources; 38% of seniors report that they have trouble covering their housing costs.

For low-income seniors, there are programs to help with both energy costs and repairs.
A good place to start is your neighborhood Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA) office.  ECA has 15 Neighborhood Energy Centers (NEC) located in senior centers, community development corporations and other community organizations. To find one near you, call 215-988-0929.

  Trained counselors at each NEC can help find, determine your eligibility, and apply for resources including LIHEAP, emergency oil grants, bill payment assistance, and weatherization assistance. They can help prevent utility emergencies through budget counseling, payment plans and intake for conservation and home repair programs.

Many of the NECs perform intake for the Utility Emergency Services Fund (UESF), which helps when a shut-off notice has been received for non-payment of gas, electric and water bills. The maximum UESF grant is $500, and clients must have applied for LIHEAP and Crisis grants if they were available. Eligibility requirement is up to 175% of the federal poverty level.

ECA also administers the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation (PHDC) Heater Hotline Program, through which they repair or replace more than 5,000 heating systems each year, free, for low-income homeowners. Heater Hotline: 215-568-7190.

Discounted rates on gas and electric
PECO offers a discount residential rate on gas and electricity for low-income customers, called the CAP rate.  Income eligibility guidelines are: no more than $1,362 per month for a one- person household; $1,839 for a two-person household; $2,317 for three persons; $2,794 for four persons.

The PECO Customer Assistance and Referral Evaluation Services (CARES) helps special-needs, low-income customers who are unable to pay their utility bill due to a temporary personal or financial hardship.

To determine if you qualify for either of these PECO programs, call 1-800-774-7040.
 For people whose income is 150% of the poverty level or less, PGW has a Customer Responsibility Program which offers a discounted rate, based on income and number of people living in the home. This program also provides for a monthly payment of $5 on any debt owed to PGW prior to enrolling in the program. Part of the prior debt is forgiven, if the customer pays bills on time going forward.

 PGW also has a CARES program to help low-income customers experiencing a temporary difficulty due to family or medical emergency, or other crisis. Anyone who is having, or anticipates having, a problem paying the gas bill is urged to contact PGW at 215-235-1777 as soon as the situation arises, to discuss a payment plan and what assistance may be available.

Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
LIHEAP, administered by the state Department of Public Welfare, makes cash payments directly to the utility company to help low-income families pay for home heating fuel. This year, LIHEAP cash program will run from November 1, 2012 to March 29, 2013. Grants range from $100 to $1,000. Qualifying income for a household of two people is $22,695; four people, $34,575.

LIHEAP Crisis assistance is available in extreme circumstances, for instance, if the main heating source is broken, has been shut off, or the household is in danger of being without fuel (less than a 15-day supply) or of having utility service terminated (received a notice that service will be shut off within the next 60 days). These grants range from $25 to $400.

 You can apply in person, at the offices listed below or at one of the neighborhood locations (call 215-560-3283 for locations); or online at: www.compass.state.pa.us. Through this website, you can also check on your eligibility for other benefits, including Medical Assistance, SNAP (food stamps), long-term care, and home- and community-based services.

Philadelphia County Assistance Office
801 Market Street
Phone: 215-560-3283
LIHEAP: 215-560-1583

Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
1348 W. Sedgley Ave.
LIHEAP phone: 215-560-1587

Water bill discounts for seniors
Philadelphia’s Water Revenue Bureau offers a 25% Senior Citizen Discount Rate on monthly water and sewer bills. To qualify, you must: be age 65 or older; live at the address on the bill; have the water and sewer bill in your name; meet a yearly income requirement. For details, call 215-686-6880; or write to: Water Revenue Bureau, P.O. Box 41496, Philadelphia, PA 19101-1496.

Minor repairs can make a big difference
 Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s Senior Housing Assistance Repair Program (SHARP) provides minor repairs for low-income Philadelphians, age 60+. These can include repairing or installing new entry doors, locks, doorbells, smoke detectors, basement steps, railings and bathroom grab bars; all of which help improve the safety or security of the home. For more information call the PCA Helpline: 215-765-9040.

For homeowners only
 In addition to the Heater Hotline Program mentioned at the beginning of this article, PHDC has a Basic Systems Repair System for low-income individuals who own and live in a single-family home in Philadelphia. A home can qualify for repairs if it has: exposed wires or other dangerous electrical condition; leaking or broken sewer or water service line; a violation notice from the Water Department; major interior damage, such as a collapsing ceiling due to a leaking roof. 

Current monthly income eligibility guidelines are: no more than $1,396 for one person; $1,891 for two people; $2,386 for three people; $2,881 for four people.
 Applications are only taken by telephone. When you call, you should have the following information: total monthly household income and all source(s) of that income; number of people in your household; your Social Security number. Call: 215-448-2160, Monday – Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Hearing impaired TDD: 215-448-2184).

 Some programs have waiting lists, but seniors are encouraged to apply if they are eligible.
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Stop Medicare Fraud


by Alicia M. Colombo
Each year, Medicare loses more than $60 billion from fraud, billing errors and abuse. This means diminished quality of care and fewer resources for older adults who need them. Through the Pennsylvania Senior Medicare Patrol (PA-SMP), volunteers are educating and empowering their peers to tackle the problem.

Jacqueline Jefferson, 78, didn’t read her Medicare Summary Notices until she noticed a glaring error. Her statement listed two visits to ‘Dr. Smith’ on the same date at different locations.

“When I called the doctor’s office about it, they told me not to worry. My insurance company said the same thing. I called Medicare, and the doctor finally refunded the money. It made me angry so angry that I decided to do something to help others. I used to toss notices that say, ‘This is not a bill.’ Now, I really pay attention. Some people aren’t concerned because the money isn’t coming out of their pockets. But we are all in this together. We can’t be nonchalant about this,” said Jefferson, who has been a PA-SMP volunteer for 13 years.

Many cases of fraud or billing errors are not caught because older adults don’t want to seem rude or questioning, according to Rebecca L. Nurick, PA-SMP program manager at the Center for the Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly (CARIE).

“We want to empower seniors to speak up, if something doesn’t look or feel right. Be cautious of anyone who calls to ask for your Medicare or Social Security number. Scammers tell seniors they will lose their benefits, if they don’t provide personal information. Medicare and Social Security will never call to sell you anything or to verify your information. Don’t be afraid to just hang up the phone,” said Nurick.


During Medicare’s annual open enrollment period (now through December 7), many companies are advertising insurance plans. Special offers that expire before the deadline are not legitimate. Always take the time to review your options. Don’t succumb to pressure or fear-based tactics.>

We’ve all seen the commercials for diabetes testing supplies or power chairs offered at no cost to you. “Anything that is truly free doesn’t require your Medicare number. If you need medical supplies or equipment, discuss your needs with your doctor. Don’t accept something that is a convenience item. Because if you really need it in the future, Medicare might not pay for it,” said Nurick.

Here are more tips to help prevent or spot Medicare fraud and errors:
*Protect your Medicare and Social Security numbers, like you would credit card or bank account numbers.
*Keep a log of all medical appointments, prescriptions, procedures, tests and equipment received. Compare your record with the quarterly summary notices from Medicare or HMO summary of charges. Question anything that doesn’t look right. Errors may not be caught unless you speak up.
*Read all mail that comes from Medicare, Social Security, and your health insurance plan. 
*Don’t just throw away your statements. Keep a bill file or shred anything with your personal information. Identity thieves could go through your trash.
*Know your rights. If you are denied medically necessary services from an HMO, you may be experiencing a type of fraud and have the right to an appeal.
* Report any suspicious billing activity or unauthorized attempt to access your personal information. If you have a question or problem with a bill, call the doctor or provider first. If the situation is not resolved, call the PA-SMP at 1-800-356-3606 for free and confidential advice.

Join the fight against Medicare fraud and abuse!
The PA-SMP has more than 80 volunteers in 30 Pennsylvania counties, who are age 62 to 93. Volunteers are Medicare beneficiaries or age 55+. No special education or career experience is required, just an outgoing personality. The most challenging, and rewarding, part of the job for many volunteers is speaking in front of groups. Training and ongoing support is provided. To learn more about becoming a PA-SMP volunteer, call CARIE at 1-800-356-3606.

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Working while collecting Social Security


By Ann L. Rappoport


So you’re retired and collecting Social Security, but you’d like to work a little and could use the extra income.  Can you do that without losing your Social Security?

In many situations, yes, but it depends on your specific circumstances, says Dan O’Connor, the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Philadelphia/Germantown district manager. Depending on your age and how much you earn, your benefits may be subject to certain income limits, and tax withholding may apply to your added income.

For instance, if you’re 63, you can still work and earn up to $14,640 annually, without losing any benefits and without any withholding. In the year you turn 66, the threshold increases to $38,880 without jeopardizing your benefits. After 66, there are no earning limits at all, and your income until 70 may actually contribute to higher benefits. You will likely have to pay taxes on your added income, however.

Until the year when you turn 66, income beyond $14,640 will trigger withholding from your Social Security benefits at the rate of $1 for every $2 earned. That is taken out of your monthly Social Security benefits. As a result, you could receive no benefits for a few months.

During the year you reach full retirement age, your earning limit increases to $38,880; what you earn beyond that is withheld at $1 for every $3 earned. 

“You can get Social Security retirement or survivors benefits and work at the same time,” according to How Work Affects Your Benefits, published by the Social Security Administration.


“It’s an individual decision,” said O’Connor.

Age when filing claim

Your age when you file your first Social Security claim makes a difference in your monthly benefits and how much other income you can have. You can file as early as 62, or wait until 70. 

For people born between 1943 and 1954, “full retirement age” is 66.  Filing before age 66 reduces your benefits by as much as 25 percent of full entitlement annually.

If you wait to file at 66 or after, you will receive full benefits no matter how much you earn from working.  However, you may be responsible for taxes on this income.

For every month between 66 and 70 that you wait to claim your benefits while continuing to work, you add to your benefits when you do file your retirement claim. 

Earning limit shifts

If you’re younger than full retirement age, and already filed for benefits, you can still go back to work full-time.  Assuming you earn more than the limits, you may lose your Social Security for the year or so you’re back in the workforce before turning 66. But in that case, your benefits will increase after 66, to take into account those months in which benefits were withheld, O’Connor explained.

Benefits based on ‘high’

Your benefits are based on your highest 3 5 years of earnings, O’Connor said.  If you earn more after you start collecting your benefits than you did in earlier years, your record will be reviewed after you reach full retirement age and your benefits may increase.

If you’re still trying to decide when to retire and start drawing benefits, or how much you should work, you should consider a number of things, such as the amount of benefits you expect; the extent of other pensions or income; the income you expect from working; the age at which you retire; your needs; and your life expectancy. 

You can access your Social Security Statement, containing your earnings and estimated benefits, at www.socialsecurity.gov/mystatement.  The SSA also offers a Benefits Planner program (www.socialsecurity.gov/planners).  O’Connor says these may assist you in financial planning, and urges you do this “earlier, rather than later,” so your planning is informed and you can address errors in your earnings record. 

Spot those errors now

For example, O’Connor has seen situations when people employed in domestic work believed their employer had paid their Social Security witholding, but never received credits for those years. The sooner such errors are spotted, the easier they may be to fix, he said.

Internal Revenue Service rules govern taxes on your income.  Part of your Social Security benefits may be subject to taxation — even if you file at or after 66. This depends on how much other income and benefits you earn, and whether you file as single, jointly or separately from your spouse.   For IRS guidelines: www.irs.gov/publications/p554/index.html.

O’Connor recommends using the Retirement Planner and other Benefit Calculator tools on the SSA website to make your individual calculations and decide what retirement/work situation fits best for you.  www.ssa.gov/retire2/whileworking2.htm.

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Don't wait: get your finances in order


By Ann L. Rappoport There’s something much worse than facing the hassle of getting your life and financial affairs in order:

Failing to do so.

If you don’t plan now for decisions to be made when you are older or incapacitated, the consequences can be unpleasant, if not “draconian,” according to Stephen Feldman, an attorney specializing in estate planning and health law.


Feldman is a former CEO of the SeniorLAW Center in Philadelphia and has served on the boards of Community Legal Services, the Alzheimer’s Association and CARIE — the Center for the Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly. In those roles he has seen firsthand the “nightmares” that arise when people haven’t properly designated decision-makers to represent them in an emergency.

Three examples
For example, if a home is owned jointly by a husband and wife and a stroke impairs the husband’s ability to communicate, unless he has granted Financial Power of Attorney to authorize someone else to make decisions for him, his wife would not be able to sell their home without court intervention.

Or if a woman with Alzheimer’s develops pneumonia with complications, her partner might not have access to her doctors or health care information or be able to help make decisions about medical treatment that they had previously discussed unless she had given that person a Health Care Power of Attorney.

For lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) couples having a Power of Attorney in place is especially crucial, since laws governing LGBT marriages and civil unions vary so greatly, depending on where they live. Without having formal legal protections in place, the partners may have no rights at all.

Financial Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney are “key planning tools” you should not postpone, because when you need them, it may already be too late, explained Karen Buck, executive director of the nonprofit SeniorLAW Center that is partially funded by PCA (215-988-1244; www.seniorlawcenter.org), which advocates for elders and counsels them. 

“These are empowerment tools, to help you preserve your dignity, autonomy and independence,” she said.

Wills and Advance Health Care Declarations (Living Wills) are also very important, she says, but not substitutes for these two kinds of Powers of Attorney.

Tips from the experts
Here are some tips these experts offer:
• Consult a reputable elder law attorney, instead of using generic, one-size-fits-all forms or advice from the Internet.  “Everybody’s situation is different,” said Feldman.
• Word of mouth is a good way to find an attorney.  Referral lists are also available from the Pennsylvania Bar Association, legal services programs (like SeniorLAW), and organizations like Alzheimer’s Association or MS Society.
• SeniorLAW Center has a free statewide HelpLine open to all seniors (1-877-727-7529) and an “intake number” (215-988-1242) for legal assistance. It offers free and supported services for those with low incomes.
• Ask attorneys in advance what they charge to draw up these documents and how they price an initial meeting.
• “You can’t leave property to heirs if you don’t own it” clearly, warned Buck, whose organization deals with countless instances of “tangled title.”  Many deeds haven’t been properly probated, and the titles may not have been transferred if an owner or co-owner has died.
• Ensuring that the deed is in your name also enables you to apply for homeowner resources such as utility discounts, home repair programs and tax rebates.  It may also help prevent fraudulent deed claims.
• Don’t assume your pensions, insurance policies and other assets will go to people you have designated. Rightful beneficiaries have been unable to claim what’s due them because of missing information, said Buck, whose organization tries to help locate these private pensions.
• Be sure to assemble — and check the names and beneficiaries of — all your insurance and benefit policies, even burial plans.
• Experts prefer Power of Attorney (and special trusts) to joint ownership of assets like bank accounts.  Be wary of transferring your house and assets to others during your life; transfer can wait until after your death.
• Understand the difference between a Health Care Power of Attorney and Advance Health Care Declaration (Living Will), which applies only to the end stages of a medically determined terminal illness or a permanently unconscious state at the end of life with no hope of recovery.  A more likely scenario — you are living with compromised or impaired cognitive function or are unconscious or unable to speak for yourself — is when the Health Care Power of Attorney (someone you chose and with whom you have discussed your feelings) is vital.  Otherwise, a stranger could be appointed to make decisions for you.
• Review your documents with every new “D” – decade, death, divorce, diagnosis and decline.

Additional documents to assemble, if possible, are your birth certificate; your marriage license; IRAs; veterans information; insurance, pension, credit card and bank information.

But it’s not only about documents, noted Buck.  “It’s also about these important conversations.”  Give voice to your values, fears and preferences with your loved ones, she advises, and make these critical decisions in your life before it’s too late.
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She helps your home drop the pounds


By Linda L. Riley
Margit Novack’s Havertown-based company, Moving Solutions, is the homeowner’s equivalent of Weight Watchers.

With generous helpings of coaching, cheerleading, practical advice, her staff helps people whittle away at piles of possessions that have accumulated over a lifetime. Her first year in business, 1996, she did four jobs; now she and her staff of 50 do about 300 per year.

“I knew from the beginning I was in the business of aging – not boxes,” she says.  “We’re seeing people often at their worst.” Some of her clients have cognitive limitations or can’t be at the home during the process. “One of the first questions is, cognitively, can the person participate in this process,” she says. For the absent client, “we’ll take pictures and go to the rehab center so Mom can pick which things she wants."


Some of the moves are planned; others are triggered by a health crisis that has resulted in a homeowner going to assisted living or a nursing home. Some of her clients are planning years in advance, realizing they have to get their house in shape before putting it up for sale.  Sometimes she’s hired by adult children who live elsewhere, to help with their elderly parents’ move.

Share the stories
Some things may be hard to part with, not because of their intrinsic value, but because of the history behind them.

“I tell the children, when you’re sorting through things, ask for the stories,” she says. Passing on the story of a figurine or a piece of furniture may also be enough. “Talk about it, write it down,” she says. “That may be more satisfying than having the thing. The stories are a big part of saying goodbye.”

“It only looks like it’s about stuff – it’s much more about the psychology of people,” she says.

Hurdles and tips
The urge to find the perfect destination for each possession not going to the new home is one of the biggest hurdles, she says. “We can’t find the perfect place for every single thing.”

She will work with people to help find places to donate or recycle things, but recommends choosing organizations that will accept a broad range of goods, rather than trying to find the perfect place for each item.  But, she cautions, avoid the trap of thinking something is “too good to donate.”  “Donating is the ultimate in being green,” she says, and “throwing something away – it’s not like driving drunk. It’s not a sin.”

Breaking large tasks into smaller chunks can help. “In your closet, do your purses. This is something you do for an hour or half an hour. You can’t do sorting eight hours a day. Start with a room that is not as challenging and finish it off. That gives you a sense of satisfaction, helps keep up the motivation,” she says.

“We’re like a personal trainer. People don’t go to a personal trainer because they don’t know how to do a situp,” she says. They go because they need discipline and support.

            “I compare it to losing 100 pounds. You just lose one at a time.”  

Novack advises that anyone considering hiring a move manager ask for proof of insurance, get a written contract, find out if workers have undergone criminal background checks, provide references and demonstrate a proven track record, among other things. 

Her company serves Philadelphia and the surrounding counties; the Lehigh Valley; Delaware; and Princeton, New Jersey; and can be reached at 610-853-4300 or on the company's website.   The National Association of Senior Move Managers can help locate one near you. Visit the website; or call 877-606-2766.

Photo by L.Riley: Margit Novack, founder of Moving Solutions describes the challenges of sorting through a lifetime's possessions.
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Domestic partnership exemption from inheritance tax proposed


By Amy Hartman, House Democratic Caucus Legislative Communications Office At a Capitol news conference last week, state Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Phila., called on House Republicans to move her legislation that would add domestic partners to the list of people who are exempt from paying state inheritance taxes.

"I believe that the institution of marriage is sacred and quite special; however, there are many traditional couples who are in deeply committed relationships, but for personal reasons, choose not to enter into the institution of marriage. Other couples are prevented by law from marriage because of their gender," Josephs said. "Nevertheless, both types of these domestic partnership arrangements do not preclude a committed, loving and monogamous relationship.

"Under the commonwealth's inheritance tax laws, the state victimizes the surviving partner of that committed couple by subjecting that partner to a significant financial burden while he or she is also experiencing the emotional trauma of a loved one's passing."

Josephs' legislation (H.B. 1828) would define a domestic partnership as a relationship not defined by marriage or a civil union, but one where the two people agree to mutual interdependence and take responsibility for the maintenance and support of the other.


In order to prove this relationship for an inheritance tax exemption, the surviving domestic partner would have to provide a signed partnership affidavit and any two documents proving their:
• joint liability of a mortgage, lease or loan;
• primary beneficiary on the other's life insurance policy or retirement plan;
• primary beneficiary on the deceased's will;
• durable power of attorney for health care or financial management;
• joint ownership or lease of a motor vehicle;
• joint checking account, investments or credit account;
• joint renter's or homeowner's insurance policy;
• coverage on a health insurance policy;
• joint responsibility for child care, such as guardianship or school documents; or
• relationship or cohabitation contract.
Josephs said that at a 15 percent rate, the surviving partner's inheritance tax bill could be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Currently, only spouses and parents of children under 21 are exempt from paying inheritance taxes on property bequeathed them.

Also speaking at the news conference was David Jacobs, one of Josephs' constituents, who was the impetus for her legislation. In a committed same-sex relationship, Jacobs spoke about how he will be impacted if this legislation is not enacted. Also attending in support were Rep. Dan Frankel, Josephs' co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, Ted Martin, executive director of Equality PA and a number of Pennsylvanians.
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Medicare Part B: March 31 is new enrollees deadline


By Dan O'Connor, Social Security District Manager, Philadelphia

If you didn’t sign up for Medicare Part B medical insurance when you first became eligible for Medicare, you now have an opportunity to apply — but time is running out. The deadline for applying during the general enrollment period is March 31. If you miss the deadline, you may have to wait until 2013 to apply.
 
Medicare Part B covers some medical expenses not covered by Medicare Part A (hospital insurance), such as doctors’ fees, outpatient hospital visits, and other medical supplies and services.
 
When you first become eligible for hospital insurance (Part A), you have a seven-month period in which to sign up for medical insurance (Part B). After that, you may have to pay a higher premium — unless you were covered through an employer's group health plan or a group health plan based on a spouse's employment.

You are given another opportunity to enroll in Part B during the general enrollment period, from January 1 to March 31 of each year. But each 12-month period that you are eligible for Medicare Part B and do not sign up, the amount of your monthly premium increases by 10 percent. 
 


There are special situations in which you can apply for Medicare Part B outside the general enrollment period. For example, you should contact Social Security about applying for Medicare if:
  • you are a disabled widow or widower between age 50 and age 65, but have not applied for disability benefits because you are already getting another kind of Social Security benefit;
  • you worked long enough in a government job where Medicare taxes were paid and you meet the requirements of the Social Security disability program and became disabled before age 65;
  • you, your spouse, or your dependent child has permanent kidney failure;
  • you had Medicare medical insurance (Part B) in the past but dropped the coverage; or
  • you turned down Medicare medical insurance (Part B) when you became entitled to hospital insurance (Part A).

You can learn more about Medicare by clicking here.  You may also call Medicare at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227; TTY 1-877-486-2048). 
 
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Discussing finances is touchy, ignoring them worse


By Marcia Z. Siegal
George Josephs (not his real name), an adult with special needs, had never worked and had lived with his parents all of his life. Upon their deaths, George and his two siblings each received an equal share of the estate.

  His parents had never talked with him or their other children about what would happen to George when they died. Since he could not afford to continue living in the family home, the house was sold and the proceeds divided among the three siblings. Unaccustomed to managing money, George ended up broke within two years.

Stories like this serve to illustrate what can happen when parents and children do not communicate about finances in advance of a parent’s death or possible physical/cognitive decline, says Marsha Rubin, CPA, a financial advisor Wharton Investment Consultants in Wilmington, Delaware.


“In some families, horrible conflicts arise over personal property when a parent dies,” she says. In addition, she points out, many planning opportunities and opportunities to save money can be lost when parents and children don’t have that conversation.

Confusion can also set in at a time when family is grieving or needs to mobilize quickly in the event of a parent’s failing health, according to Rubin.

She recalls working with the children of an elderly widower who had died suddenly. He had always handled his finances on his own and in recent years had paid all his bills online. 

After his death, his children were unaware of his financial obligations, especially since no bills came in by mail. None of them knew his computer password to access information about his bills or banking accounts in order to straighten out his affairs. “It was a nightmare to find the information and a situation that never should have happened,” Rubin says.

Often children don’t realize how much their parents’ finances can affect them personally, she points out. A parent’s long-term care needs, for instance, could present children with multiple dilemmas if his/her wishes and financial situation are unclear.

Does the parent wish for care at home? Assisted living? Or another option? Does he or she have long-term care insurance? What are the ramifications of the children helping to pay expenses?

Parents may not get what they want if they don’t communicate about these things, Rubin advises, adding that adult children can be proactive in starting the conversation.

Here are some key issues to clarify if provisions are already not in place. An elder law attorney can help families address these issues and create the necessary documents.

• What personal property and other assets do your parents own? How are these items titled? Whom do they want to inherit each of these items after their deaths?
• What financial obligations do your parents have?
• What cash and investment accounts and insurance policies do they have?
• What are your parents’ wishes for long term care, if needed?
• In the event of a terminal illness, would they be in favor of extreme medical intervention or not? 
• Is there a long-term care insurance policy?
• Is there a designated Power of Attorney?
• Is there a  Durable Power of Attorney (in the event a parent becomes incapacitated and cannot manage his/her financial affairs, make health care decisions, or conduct other business)
• Is there a living will?
• What are your parents’ burial plans?
• Do your parents each have a will and are there copies of these wills? If so, where are the originals and copies located? Who will be the executor?
• Is there a family member with special needs who will have to be provided for after their deaths?

  “People don’t like to talk about stuff like that,” says Rubin. “Many older adults are proudly   independent and used to taking care of themselves. My feeling is that dealing with these issues is a way for them to take care of themselves — right to the end.”

Resources for more information

Community Legal Service of Philadelphia, SeniorLAW Center, and Temple University’s Elderly Law Project 
provide a wide range of services to protect the legal rights and interests of the elderly.

The Philadelphia Bar Association referral service can provide referrals to elder law attorneys in the area.

A cautionary note: Elder financial exploitation is one of the nation’s fastest growing crimes, and family members are the most frequent perpetrators. Click here for guidelines   from Consumer Reports about signs of elder financial exploitation and how to prevent it.
In Philadelphia, elder abuse, including financial exploitation, can be reported to PCA’s Older Adult Protective Services 24/7 by calling the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040. 
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Mother-Son Team Offers Financial Solutions for Retirees


By Marcia Z. Siegal


Financial services expert Tema Steele is fond of saying that her clients are like extended  family. Family is also at the heart of the mother-son business she runs in partnership with her son, Joel Steele.


A Philadelphia native, Tema Steele founded Steele Financial Solutions in 1981 after a career in banking management. She was a single mother struggling to raise her two sons, ages two and four, and to regain her own financial footing in those start-up days. “I was on food stamps at the time. I had nothing to fall back on,” she remembers. “But I had determination and drive, and failure was not an option.”


In the 30 years since this Cherry Hill business began, it has served an estimated 3,000 clients. Those clients have included many women who “following a divorce or death of a spouse, need to know they will be in good shape financially," Tema Steele says.


“The issue for all clients,” she continues, “isn’t just how much money you have, but what will it do for you. Your assets should be like a faucet. You should be able to turn it on and off, so the money is available for whatever you need.”


Her son, Joel, came on board as co-owner and partner at Steele Financial Solutions in 2002. (Her other son, Jay, is a professional musician.)


“My mom always wanted me to get into the business," Joel Steele remembers, "but initially I looked the other way.” Instead, he went on to create and operate a restaurant chain, Thinkers Grille. After the restaurants closed, he followed his mother’s example by becoming an agent with New York Life Insurance Company. At Steele Financial Solutions, the two collaborate on behalf of almost every client.


Tema Steele says she often focuses on both the financial and emotional factors surrounding clients’ money issues, honing in on clients’ retirement/life goals and what they want their money do to for them. Joel Steele is typically the analytical numbers cruncher, who focuses on the income-producing and tax-savings aspects of clients’ financial options.

While Steele Financial Solutions serves clients of varying ages, the firm has developed a particular niche in working with individuals 50+ to help them plan retirement strategies before and/or during retirement. Such strategies can include insurance, investments, bonds and other financial products.


“People 50 and up have the most amount of money, but, more importantly, they have the biggest number of decisions to make,” Tema Steele points out. “They stand to lose the most if they make poor financial decisions, like investment selections and pension options. The wrong move or even procrastination can result in tens of thousands of dollars in losses."


“All of our recommendations have to do with the individual’s risk tolerance, liquidity needs, growth or income objectives, expenses, and time horizons,” she continues. “People are afraid of outliving their savings, so they often ask if they can afford to retire.” 


Here’s Tema’s advice on how to a avoid two common pitfalls:
 


·  "Leaving assets of a 401K plan with a former employer after retirement is not a good idea," she says. You may be better off taking this 401K money in a lump sum and investing it more appropriately for your situation. In addition, 401K plans often have hidden fees.


·   Electing a pension option without considering a lump sum distribution can pose another problem. In the event of the retiree’s death (and that of any spouse beneficiary), the retiree’s children would get nothing. “Consult with your retirement planner beforehand, because these decisions are irrevocable,” Tema Steele advises.


In addition to working together in their business, this mother-son duo co-hosts a radio show “Your Money Matters with Tema and Joel Steele” that airs on WVLT, “Cruisin’ 92.1” FM in Vineland, New Jersey on Sunday afternoons from 2 to 3 p.m.
 

The secret to a successful family business partnership, says Tema Steele “is being on the same page. We both have the same goals. Sometimes things flare up a little, but we both want the same things and care about each other. We always work things out and keep moving forward.”


Click Here>> for more advice from Steele Financial Solutions.

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EDITORIAL: Why Medicaid Matters for People with Medicare


By Ron Pollack, Executive Director, Families USA
You’ve worked hard, saved what you can, and you think you’re pretty well set for retirement. However, as recent stock market fluctuations make clear, a lot can happen to derail your good planning.
 
For example, you might end up needing more long-term care than you expected. If that happens, the good news is that there’s already a safety net out there for you and your family. It’s called Medicaid and it’s the state and federally funded health insurance program that serves millions of seniors, children, and people with disabilities. In fact, more than one in six Americans over 65 rely on it.
 
Unfortunately, there is a big misperception among many people that Medicare pays for nursing homes or home care, but that’s simply not the case for most people. Medicare only pays for long-term care in very limited circumstances. In most cases, you’ll have to pay yourself unless you have a long-term care insurance policy. Even if you have that kind of insurance, many policies only cover costs for a limited time or for certain services. With nursing homes averaging over $70,000 a year and home health aides costing $19 an hour, you may soon find that you’ve used up most of your life savings.
 
Luckily, the Medicaid safety net can help you get the care you need.

Over 60 percent of nursing home residents rely on Medicaid, but Medicaid isn’t just about nursing home care. Medicaid also pays for services that help people stay in their homes longer, such as home health aides or transportation to doctors’ appointments. Medicaid pays for some home care in every state, but the coverage of specific services varies.

Medicaid doesn’t just help you, it also helps your family. If you’re married, Medicaid includes financial protections for your spouse. That means that if you’re in a nursing home, your spouse can keep some money without affecting your Medicaid eligibility. Thanks to health care reform, after 2014 that same financial protection will apply if you need home care, so the cost of your care won’t impoverish your spouse.

Furthermore, because Medicaid covers the cost of your long-term care, your family won’t have to. Your children can keep saving for your grandchildren’s education and for their own retirement. By providing care at home, Medicaid gives your family members more time for their jobs and families, lessening the stress for everyone.

Millions of seniors and their families rely on Medicaid. Unfortunately, severe program cutbacks are a real possibility, especially in light of the ongoing deficit debate. The U.S. House of Representatives already passed a proposal to make drastic cuts to the Medicaid safety net.

Although this legislation did not pass the senate, the threats continue. The latest debt compromise includes the formation of a 12 member “super committee,” and in order to meet their Thanksgiving Day deadline for a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion, Medicaid will likely face the chopping block.

Medicaid cuts would inevitably mean less help for seniors who need long-term care. There’s a better way to tackle our deficit than placing the burden on aging Americans and their families. That’s by getting rid of tax cuts for the wealthy and closing tax loopholes for corporations-- in short, taking a balanced approach to deficit reduction that makes everyone pay a fair share. Dismantling Medicaid and leaving seniors on their own to pay for long-term care would be the wrong way to go. We need to make sure that the Medicaid safety net is there to help you and your family with the high costs of long-term care.
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Protect yourself from cybercriminals


As cell phones, email, websites and apps have become essential tools of daily life for many of us, they have also become tools for a new breed of criminals.

You may have caller i.d., and your computer may be protected by the best anti-virus software and spam-blocking available, but nothing is foolproof. That's why it's important to be vigilant yourself, and be aware of the many tricks cybercriminals have up their sleeves.

Following are information and tips from Microsoft Corporation on some of the most common ones, how to recognize them, and how to protect yourself.
Phishing email messages, websites, and phone calls are designed to steal money. Cybercriminals can do this by installing malicious software on your computer or stealing personal information off of your computer.

Cybercriminals also use social engineering to convince you to install malicious software or hand over your personal information under false pretenses. They might email you, call you on the phone, or convince you to download something off of a website.

Being able to recognize the signs of cybercrime is your first line of defense.

"Phishing" takes many forms

Here is an example of what a phishing scam in an email message might look like. The bad spelling and grammar used in the message are clues that this is not legitimate:        phishing1.jpg   Cybercriminals are not known for their grammar and spelling. Professional companies or organizations usually have a staff of copy editors that will not allow a mass email like this to go out to its users. If you notice mistakes in an email, it might be a scam. For more information, see Email and web scams: How to help protect yourself.

Threats are another possible indication of a scam. Have you ever received a threat that your account would be closed if you didn't respond to an email message? The email message shown above is an example of this trick. Cybercriminals also may use threats that your security has been compromised. For more information, see Watch out for fake alerts.

Beware of links in email. If you see a link in a suspicious email message, don't click on it. Rest your mouse (but don't click) on the link to see if the address matches the link that was typed in the message. In the example below, the link reveals the real web address, as shown in the box with the yellow background. The string of cryptic numbers looks nothing like the company's web address.

phishing2.jpg

Links might also lead you to .exe files. These kinds of file are known to spread malicious software.

Spoofing or masquerading as popular websites or companies is another technique scam artists use. There may be graphics in an email that appear to be connected to legitimate websites but which actually take you to phony scam sites or legitimate-looking pop-up windows. For more information, see Avoid scams that use the Microsoft name fraudulently.

Cybercriminals also use web addresses that resemble the names of well-known companies but are slightly altered. For more information, see Protect yourself from cybersquatting and fake web addresses.

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Benefits help low-income seniors survive


By Marica Z. Siegal
piggy.jpg

Struggling seniors can take advantage of significant savings through state, federal  and local assistance programs. For those who qualify, there are rebates for property taxes and rent, food assistance and help with home repairs. Here’s a look at a few of these programs.

Low-Income Subsidy (LIS) “Extra Helpwith Prescription Costs: Medicare beneficiaries who meet eligibility requirements can get extra help to reduce prescription drug costs and to reduce or eliminate premiums and deductibles for their Medicare Part D prescription plan. According to the Social Security Administration, the Extra Help program is estimated to be worth about $4,000 a year in savings on prescription drug plan costs. 

To qualify for the program, annual income must be no more than $16,335 for an individual or ($22,065 for a married couple living together. (There are some exceptions where income may be higher). Resources are limited to $12,640 for an individual ($25,260 for a married couple living together).  Eligible individuals can enroll at any time. Click here for more information.

Pennsylvania’s Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program offers eligible individuals up to $950 in property tax rebates and up to $650 in rent rebates. The application deadline has been extended to December 31, 2011. 

To qualify, homeowners or renters must be 65 or older; widows and widowers 50 or older; or adults 18 or older who are permanently disabled. The annual household income limit is now $35,000 for homeowners and $15,000 for renters. (Only half of Social Security income is counted towards total income for the Pennsylvania Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program.) Click here for more information. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (the new name for the federal Food Stamp Program) assists low-income individuals and families in purchasing the food they need.

Individuals 60 and over and adults with disabilities can qualify if income is no more than $1,805 (one person) or $2,429 (two-person household). If income is above these limits or there are more than three people in the household, they may still be eligible. Click here for information from the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger or visit the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare’s SNAP application help site.

Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SMFNP) is an program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. It provides eligible individuals 60 and over with  $20 worth of vouchers to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.  Distribution got underway July 11 and continues while supplies last. Vouchers can be used at certified Farmers’ Markets throughout the area and must be used by November 30, 2011.

To qualify, total 2010 household income must not exceed the following guidelines: one person:  $20,147; two people:  $27,214; three people: $34,281; four people: $41,348. 
In Philadelphia, eligible seniors may receive the vouchers at PCA’s main office at 642 North Broad Street (9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays) and at other designated sites while supplies last. Proof of age and Philadelphia residency are required.  For more information, including voucher distribution sites, call the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040. 
  
Senior Housing Assistance Repair Program (SHARP), SHARP: Administered by PCA, SHARP provides minor repairs and modifications for eligible Philadelphia resident homeowners age 60 and older. 
 
Gross income guidelines for SHARP are $1,361 per month for one person or $1,839 for two people. Applicants must reside in a structurally sound property with all utilities functioning, including  the central heating system; and have received no SHARP services in the last five years. For more information or to apply, call the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040. 
 
For benefits counseling and enrollment resources, call BenePhilly: 1-800-236-2194

Counseling is also available at senior community centers throughout the city. To locate a senior center near you, call the PCA Helpline: 215-765-9040.
 
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Q & A on Social Security Disability Benefits


By Dan O'Connor
If you’ve experienced an illness or injury that will prevent you from working for at least a year, you may be eligible to receive assistance through one of two programs administered by the Social Security Administration. Following is basic information, in Q&A form, about these programs, plus web resources where you can learn more. The Social Security Administration also has a toll-free number to call and speak to a representative.

Question:
What is the difference between Social Security Disability (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability? 

Answer:
Social Security is responsible for running two major programs that provide benefits based on disability: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is based on prior work and the taxes you pay into the Social Security program.  To be eligible for an SSDI benefit, the worker must earn sufficient credits based on taxable work to be "insured" for Social Security purposes.  SSDI benefits are payable to eligible blind or disabled workers, the widow(er)s of a disabled worker, or adults disabled since childhood.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability payments are made on the basis of financial need to adults or children who are disabled or blind, have limited income and resources, meet the living arrangement requirements, and are otherwise eligible.  SSI is a program financed through general revenues.  For more information, visit the website or call toll-free at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). 
Question:
I understand that to get Social Security disability benefits, my disability must be expected to last at least a year or be expected to result in death. But I am disabled now. Does this mean that I must wait a year after becoming disabled before I can receive benefits?
 
Answer:
You do not have to wait a year after becoming disabled. If you are disabled and expect to be out of work for at least a year, you should apply for disability benefits right away. It can take months to process an application for disability benefits.  You can apply online for Disability Benefits on the website.   If approved, your first Social Security disability benefit will be paid for the sixth full month after the date your disability began. This is true for both SSI and SSDI.  For more information about Social Security disability benefits, refer to Disability Benefits (Publication No. 05-10029). 
 
Question:
I get disability benefits. I would really like to try to work again, but I cannot risk losing my medical coverage. I understand Social Security’s Ticket to Work might let me try working without endangering my benefits. What can you tell me about it?
 
Answer:
Ticket to Work is a voluntary program that offers disabled Social Security beneficiaries a variety of choices in obtaining the support and services they need to help them go to work and achieve their employment goals. If you receive Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits based on disability or blindness and would like to work or increase your current earnings, this program can help you get vocational rehabilitation, training, job referrals, and other ongoing support and services to do so. For more information, visit the Ticket to Work website.
 
Question:
Are Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits taxable?
Answer:
No.  Unlike Social Security benefits, which may be subject to income tax, SSI payments are not subject to Federal taxes, and you will not receive an annual form SSA-1099.  This is because SSI is based on financial eligibility; if you qualify for SSI you will not have to pay taxes on that income. For more information, see Supplemental Security Income (Publication No. 05-11000), visit the website or call toll-free at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) is treated differently from SSI –  SSDI is subject to taxes based on the same criteria as Social Security Retirement Income.
 
Question:
If I receive SSI or SSDI, can I get health insurance?

Answer:
If you are receiving SSI, you automatically qualify for Medicaid in the State of Pennsylvania. If you are receiving SSDI, after two years you will be eligible for Medicare for as long as you are still eligible for SSDI.

Dan O'Connor is Social Security District Manager in Philadelphia.
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Sometimes, growing older pays!


By Alicia Colombo
Many people grouse about getting that first letter from AARP - the one that confirms that, like it or not, you've turned 50. But growing older has its perks - among them, discounts, many of which start at age 50. Discounts and cost-cutting tricks abound, some determined by age, and others just requiring some tech-savvy. Following are some ways to pay less for everything from  prescription drugs to theater tickets.



Coupons Galore

Thousands of discounts and printable coupons are available to anyone with an internet connection and a printer, and there is no age requirement for these. Shopping online? Do a search for ‘free shipping codes’ before you place that order. Planning a shopping trip to the mall or supermarket? Check out the five best coupon-clipping websites, according to The Wall Street Journal’s Smart Money website: Coupons.com, CouponCabin.com, CouponMom.com, RetailMeNot.com, and SmartSource.com.
 
Bill Help

You can save a lot of money each month by looking for ways to lower your regular monthly bills, like mortgage and phone. If price increases are getting out of hand, research special offers for switching to a different company, or consider dropping unnecessary services or switching to a different package. Billeater.com offers more tips to help you save money on bills and allows you to compare services/costs. Topic-specific sections are dedicated to insurance, debt reduction, mortgage, banking, credit cards, and retirement.
 
Some other tips:

Prescription drugs are among the top costs for people age 50+. Take advantage of flat-rate $4 generic prescription plans offered by national retailers, including Target and Wal-mart. Drug stores, including CVS, Rite-Aid and Walgreens, also offer discounts on orders of a 90-day supply.  
 
Saving energy is just like saving money. Install a programmable thermostat in your home or apartment, and use it to regulate the temperature at different times of the day. Switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs and ENERGY STAR-rated appliances will lower your electric bill and help the environment, too. Make sure your home is well insulated to avoid energy leaks. For more tips on energy efficiency, go to energysavers.gov.

With gas prices steadily rising, fuel economy is on everyone’s mind. There are several ways to boost your car’s miles per gallon, without upgrading to a hybrid. By driving conservatively, you can decrease highway gas mileage by as much as 33%, according to Energy and Environment Analysis, Inc. Aggressive driving behaviors, such as rapid acceleration, hard breaking and speeding, wreak havoc on gas mileage. Today’s vehicles do not need to be ‘warmed up,’ so cut down on idling to reduce wasted fuel. Keeping your car well maintained with properly inflated tires, engine tune-ups, major engine repairs and correct grade motor oil can improve gas mileage by nearly 50%.
 
Senior Discounts Start at 50!

Want your senior discount? Go to SeniorDiscounts.com, which features more than 135,000 discounts. The website was created in 2000, when founder Doug Brown began to wonder where (besides the movies) he could put his age to work for him. The site’s goal is to help the mature community save money by finding and publicizing age-related discounts. In addition to discounts, articles and weekly newsletters with money-saving tips are featured. For those without internet access, a SeniorDiscounts Guide Book is available, which offers a printed version of the online database. Basic membership is free and includes access to the free newsletter, discussion boards, articles, and general information about discounts. Full access to the SeniorDiscounts database is available for a membership fee, starting at $7.95 per year. Premium Registration for $12.95, includes the printed guidebook.

If you’re 50 or older, you are eligible to join AARP and take advantage of a wide range of benefits, discounts, and timely information. For just $16 a year, members also gain expert advice on topics ranging from travel to caregiving. Discounts are offered to more than 500 online retailers and 15,000 restaurants nationwide. The Fitness & Wellness program provides discounts on gym memberships, personal trainers, Walk at Home DVD’s and more. Travel discounts can include savings on car rentals, cruises, hotels and tours. AARP’s Auto Insurance Program from The Hartford claims to save members an average of $384. Money-saving discounts are also available for other insurance products, financial services and even home security systems.

Discounts are also available from AAA and other membership-based organizations. When in doubt, ask if a senior discount is available. You have nothing to lose, and extra money to gain!  

That's Entertainment! (and shopping, pampering, and so much more) 

Love going to the theater, or the museum, but can't afford the price? Sign up for Funsavers at phillyfunguide. Every Thursday you'll get an email with half-price offers to performances and exhibits at venues throughout the region.

LivingSocial and Groupon are two other great resources for savings. You sign up for the city where you live, and every day you'll receive offers of great discounts on shopping, services, products - you name it. The deals are only good for one day, so you'll want to keep close tabs on your emails. Recent deals have included half-price house cleaning, massages, garden center credits and spa treatments.

Special Offers for Low-Income Seniors

The application deadline for Pennsylvania’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program has been extended to April 15. If you or someone you know needs extra help paying for home heating or energy bills Click Here>> to see if you qualify.

People who receive government assistance, including Medicaid and SSI, may qualify for a free cell phone with 250 free voice minutes each month through Assurance Wireless’ Lifeline Program. For more information to see if you qualify, call 1-888-898-4888 or Click Here>>

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Beware charity scams!


By Marcia Z. Siegal
Disasters, like the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, typically spur an outpouring of charitable giving by people wanting to help. So too, scammers surge in disaster’s wake, seeking to make a fast dollar by exploiting others’ generous impulses.

Thousands of charity scams arose after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, for example. According to an article by Forbes Magazine Senior Editor William P. Barrett posted last year on the magazine’s website, “The problem was so big that federal authorities formed a Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force to investigate and try to stop the fraudulent pitches.”

Older adults are often the targets of such scams. Their generation is thought to be more trusting. Many have built up savings and investments over the years, and so have a lot to lose, according to Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

Barrett offers a number of suggestions to avoid the charity scammers, among them:

• Ignore unsolicited e-mail requests and be wary of bogus charity websites. Scammers  often set up bogus websites and link to them through email solicitations, he says. Many of these fraudulent websites have similar names to those of  well-known organizations, but are really scams to get a hold of your credit card and other financial information.
• Avoid charities you've never heard of. Instead, stick to ‘brand’ names; it's safer to donate to  larger, established, recognizable charities with track records.

• Link to a legitimate charity from a reputable website, such as that of “charity watchdog” Charity  Navigator, which evaluates the financial health of over 5,500 of the nation’s largest charities; or the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance
• Do not send money to a foreign bank account overseas.

Timothy Hilbert,  CPA, of the Kreischer Miller accounting firm in Horsham, Pa., advises checking out the IRS Publication 78, a list of 501c(3) organizations eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions. The list is frequently updated to include new organizations and to delete/revoke organizations which are no longer considered qualified. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Charitable Organizations   also lists recognized charities within the state and posts local and national charity fraud alerts.


Hilbert also cautions, that “The more pressure you get from the caller, the more likely it’s a ruse. The greater the sob story, the greater caution to use.”  He offers some additional tips to help you direct your charitable gift wisely:  

•   Avoid requests from those claiming to be victims or family members of disaster victims.
•   Avoid telemarketer solicitations unless you are sure of the caller.
•   Do not  give out personal information such as your credit card account, checking account, or Social Security number over the phone. While legitimate charities may also ask for an immediate  credit card payment, it’s preferable to  request that a solicitation be mailed to you or request an address to mail your check to.
•    Telemarketing calls for donations, even if legitimate, usually involve paid solicitors. At the very least that is an inefficient way of running a charity, says Hilbert, and you are better off initiating a donation directly.

The charity watchdog organization Charity Navigator uses a charity’s website and its data from the newly expanded IRS Form 990 to rate charities by evaluating two broad areas of financial health: their organizational efficiency in terms of overhead and expenses, and their organizational capacity, the extent to which the charity is sustaining its programs and services and whether it can continue to do so. It also issues an overall rating, reflecting the charity’s performance in both areas. Among the indicators for organizational efficiency are fundraising efficiency — the amount a charity spends to raise $1. Charities are rated up to four stars in any given category, including the overall rating.

RESOURCES


Click here for Charity Navigator’s link to three-and-four-star charities for Japan earthquake and tsunami relief.

Click here  for some additional charitable giving tips from the Federal Trade Commission.

Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s Stop Senior Scams website   offers tips to recognize and avoid charity scams and other forms of financial abuse.

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Demystifying electric power choices


By Marcia Z. Siegal
PECO is no longer the only game in town when it comes to generating electricity. You now have the opportunity to choose the company that generates your electricity, among various competitors that have entered the market.

To help you sort through your options, NBC 10 Philadelphia and the PUC will sponsor a free PA Power Switch event on Tuesday, March 22, from 11a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Rotunda of  the Shops at Liberty Place, 1625 Chestnut Street.  in Center City. Hosted by station anchor and Consumer Reporter Tracy Davidson, it will offer an opportunity to hear from PUC experts, PECO representatives, and alternate energy suppliers. Participants are advised to bring a copy of their PECO bill. You can sign up for a new electricity supplier at the event or get a print-out of a price comparison to take home and evaluate.


If you decide to switch, you are choosing only an electric generation supplier (EGS); this will determine how much you pay for the electricity you use (the price per kilowatt hour). that you pay. If you live in Greater Philadelphia, PECO will continue to transmit and distribute (deliver) your energy, including energy supplied by an alternate company if you select one, and to service electric power outages and repairs.

The PUC’s PA Power Switch website offers in-depth information about electric choice; advice on shopping for an electric power supplier; energy saving tips; and more.  You can locate your EGS options by zip code. By referencing a current bill, you can plug in your usage to get estimated costs from various suppliers in your area.  Consumers who do not have internet access or printer availability can call the PUC at 1-800-692-7380 to receive more information and a print-out of available suppliers.

Here are some important questions to ask when shopping for an electric supplier, according to the PUC’s PA Power Switch website.

 Is the supplier licensed by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC)?
 What is the price per kilowatt hour (kWh)? Is the price fixed or does it depend on time of day or usage?
 Are all taxes included in the supplier's price?
 What is the length of the agreement? Can your price change in that time? If so, when can it change and how will you be notified?
 Is there a cancellation fee or any penalty for switching suppliers?
 Does the supplier offer a choice of energy sources, such as renewable energy?
 Will you receive one bill or two?
 Does the supplier offer a budget billing plan?
 Is there a bonus for signing up?

You can switch electric suppliers at any time, according to PUC spokeswoman Denise McCracken, but she cautions that consumers should read the fine print in their EGS contract to be aware of any penalties in doing so. If you choose not to switch or take no action, PECO will remain your supplier.

Economics may not be your sole consideration in choosing an EGS, McCracken says.  For instance, you may prefer to go with a supplier who offers power generated by renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar or hydroelectric power. You may also want to factor in what other energy-related services the supplier may offer, such as energy audits and conservation services, or whether the supplier offers a fixed or variable rate.

Pre-registration is not required for the NBC10 PA Power Switch event. Information about the event and other consumer tips are available by visiting the NBC 10 Philadelphia  “Survive and Thrive” website.

Organizations and groups can schedule a workshop on the PA  power switch by contacting Shari Williams, PUC senior communications specialist in the agency’s Philadelphia office, at shariwilli@state.pa.us or 215-560-6901.
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Tips to speed up your disability application


By Dan O'Connor, Social Security District Manager, Philadelphia

 If you have been working, and have developed a disabling condition which prevents you from continuing to work, you may be eligible for disability benefits through Social Security. In most cases, applying for benefits involves a thorough process of determining your eligibility, medical condition, and ability to work.

Because Social Security considers more than three million cases each year, it can take three to five months to determine whether you are eligible.

Processing times on the initial claim can vary depending on several factors, but primarily on:
•The nature of your disability;
•How quickly Social Security obtains medical evidence from your doctor or other medical sources
•Whether a medical examination is deemed necessary by Social Security, to obtain evidence to support your claim.
 
There are things you can do to help speed up the process. The more information you provide up front, the  faster your claim can be processed. The best place to start is online. Select “Disability Starter Kit” in the left column. There, you’ll find more information and starter kits for both adults and children.


What type of information is needed?

• Any medical records or documentation you have is helpful. Social Security can make copies of the records you have and return your originals
• The names, addresses, and phone numbers for any doctors, medical facilities, treatment centers, or providers related to your disabling condition
• The names, addresses, and phone numbers for previous employers and the dates worked for each employer
• Workers’ compensation information, including the settlement agreement, date of injury, claim number, and proof of other disability benefits awarded
• Names and dates of birth of your minor children and your spouse
• Dates of marriages and divorces (if any)
• Checking or savings account number, and the bank’s 9-digit routing number, your payment can be deposited electronically
• Name, address, and phone number of a person we can contact if you cannot be reached

If this disability application is for a child, Social Security will need the name, address, phone number of the schools attended and any school records you can provide.

You will also be asked to sign release forms that give Social Security permission to obtain the information needed from third parties to make a decision on your claim.

The easiest way to apply for Social Security Disability benefits is online; however, you can make an appointment by phone at 1-800-772-1213; or by going to a Social Security office. Appointments can take place in the office or can be conducted on the phone.

Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) benefits cover people who have been working and who become disabled.  There is another program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which helps people who are blind or disabled or over age 65, and who have very limited incomes. Both programs are handled through the Social Security Administration, but the qualifications and benefits are different.  

You can apply online for SSDI benefits, but not for SSI.  However, you can begin an SSI application  by completing the online Disability Starter Kit to prepare for the interview and speed-up the processing time. For more information, visit the website.
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After the meltdown: financial planning for retirement


By Pam George
In retirement, how you live the rest of your life depends on your ability to establish financial stability and independence. The financial meltdown and real estate crisis may have sidetracked you, but you can still take steps to improve the situation.

Make an honest assessment of your financial situation. Look at assets, income and expenses. If you're still working — even part time — consider future earnings and what to do with them.

“You need to manage them as well as any investment portfolio,” says Kenny B. Bauer, vice president of the Marshall Financial Group.  Saving money is critical at any stage of the game.  And when it comes to expenses, it's important to know the difference between what you need and what you want.  

Aim to be debt-free

Avoid taking out another mortgage, says David Hoyer, owner of Hoyer Financial Services.

“I have a friend who says, ‘I’ll have a mortgage until I die,’”  Hoyer says. “That shouldn’t be anyone’s goal or expectation. It makes sense for people approaching or in retirement to be as debt-free as possible. The fewer financial challenges, the better.”


What about reverse mortgages?
 
Before the housing bust, there were plenty of articles on reverse mortgages, loans that let homeowners 62 and older convert their home’s value into tax-free cash. Instead of paying a monthly mortgage, they receive a monthly fee. Repayment is not required until the home is no longer the borrower’s primary residence. There’s no interest until a borrower dies, sells the home or permanently moves.
But use caution with reverse mortgages. Closing costs are typically higher than with a traditional mortgage. It may be cost-prohibitive if considering a move in a few years. “They should only be on an as-needed basis,” Hoyer says.

Insurance options

If you have life insurance, decide whether you still need the coverage as much as when your children were young, Hoyer says. If not, you may wish to drop it.

Alternatively, you may want to investigate the possiblity of a life (or viatical) settlement. This involves the sale of a life insurance policy to a third party — an individual, investor or investment group. You sell it in return for funds you can use immediately. You are paid less than the death benefit, but usually more than would be gained by cashing the policy directly with the insurance company. The buyer collects the death benefit when you die. So your heirs won’t benefit from the policy.

Before you sell your policy, the Pennsylvania Insurance Commission urges the following precautions:

Consult a tax advisor to determine if the settlement will be taxed.

Consult your insurance company or agent to find out if there are other options, such as a policy loanl or if you can change your premium.

Determine if the settlement will impact your eligibility for any government benefits you currently receive. Check with the government agency itself.



Investment strategies  

As for your investments, continue to diversify. If still working and investing in a 401K, seek advice as to how to invest the funds. It’s important that you be properly diversified in your investments, and that you can change your investments to reflect a changing market.

A financial planner may suggest an annuity, which guarantees retirement income for a certain time frame — or for the rest of your life. There are many different products, from those with fixed returns — called fixed annuities — to those that can be invested in the market — variable annuities. There’s a drawback: If you cash in the annuity before a specified time, you’ll pay a hefty surrender fee. Those with enough liquid cash to last through the surrender period, however, may benefit from an annuity.

Whether investing, saving or diversifying, keep your eye on the prize: how you want to live the rest of your life, Bauer says. After all, he concludes, “we’re living for life, not living for money.”
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Are there treasures in your attic?


By Marcia Z. Siegal
The stories abound: a precious historical document found in an old barn; that centuries- old Chinese vase found in an attic and sold at auction for $85 million; or that painting in possession of an upstate New York family for generations, which may soon be authenticated as a work by Michelangelo.

Could it happen to you?


Might that painting, in your family for generations, yield some much-needed cash? What about that silver tea set you received at your wedding 30 years ago... Perhaps you’re downsizing or settling a loved one’s estate ... Is that Grandfather Clock worth selling? What about Grandma's old Gramophone? Such decisions can be tough — especially where there is a lot of personal property and sentiment to consider. Whatever the reasons, knowing the fair market value of the objects in question can help.

Age (antiques are defined as 100 years old or older), craftsmanship, and condition are important, but, demand plays a central role in any selling price. It can be well worth it to obtain expert advice to know what the current market trends are for the object or objects in question.
 
Susan M. Golashaovsky, an accredited senior appraiser based in Doylestown, PA, says that while some objects like a Michelangelo painting remain forever in high demand, in many other cases “values are based on popularity and people’s willingness to pay for it.”

As a certified personal property appraiser, Golashaovsky, has the specialized training, accreditation, and research skills to evaluate an object’s fair market value. She says she frequents auctions, galleries, and other appropriate venues and keeps up with professional meetings and trade publications to catch what’s hot in the art and antiques marketplace.

”Jewelry and silver are picking up,” she says, “by that I mean things at the ‘top of the market,’ worth $10,000 or above." Things at the high end always have value, she notes, but adds that some items like silver serving pieces tend not to be as popular today "because most people don’t entertain like that anymore.”

According to an article in the Daily Press of Newport News, VA,“the market is experiencing a generational shift, moving from the very old to the relatively new to accommodate a younger collector… Shoppers, especially the younger ones just coming into the antiques and vintage market, are looking for those bright colors and unique pieces of the '50s and even the '60s."

Appraisals of personal property are legal documents. They can be used to assess the replacement value for objects for insurance purposes; to value items for the purpose of sale; for property settlements when a marriage is dissolved; for estate planning; to value gifts for charitable donation; and for other reasons.  Many certified appraisers offer a consultation service, often for a lesser fee, and will come to the home and help you identify what may be of value. If you decide to go for a formal appraisal afterwards, you will need to use a different appraiser for this.  

Golashaovsky, who heads the Ethics Committee for the American Society of Appraisers’ Philadelphia chapter, cautions against having an antique or other dealer appraise your personal property if he or she also intends to later sell it, as that presents a clear conflict of interest.  

While there’s always the possibility of found treasure, the opposite can often occur as well.  Golashaovsky has encountered her fair share of the overly optimistic.  “I’ve come across families who will tell me they’re in possession of the same exact item they saw on “ANTIQUES ROADSHOW" (the PBS series on antiques and collecting),” she says. “I come and see it, and it turns out to be a 20-year-old reproduction of what they saw on the “ROADSHOW.”

More information on personal property appraisals, including help finding an accredited appraiser, is available from the ASA.

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Real estate tax freeze for some seniors


Deadline to apply: Nov. 5
Philadelphia , October 20, 2010 – The Philadelphia Revenue Department has extended the application deadline for low-income senior citizens applying for a real estate tax rate freeze to November 5, 2010. This program protects low-income senior citizens from increases in property assessments and increases in real estate tax rates. If approved, the applicant’s 2011 Real Estate Tax bill will be adjusted to the 2010 amount, and the applicants will be exempt from paying the 9.9% increase to Philadelphia’s real estate taxes beginning in 2011.

“Increased real estate taxes can be especially difficult for those Philadelphians living on a fixed income. By extending its deadline, the Revenue Department is offering an opportunity to those who truly need our help,” said Mayor Michael A. Nutter. “I want to encourage all senior citizens who think they may be eligible to apply before the deadline on November 5th.”

Eligibility requirements for the program include:
Age Requirement
  •         Your or your spouse is 65 years or older OR
  •         You are a widow/widower 50 years old or older AND your spouse was at least 65 years old at the time of his or her death.

Income Requirement
  •         You are single/widowed and your 2009 income was less than $23,5000 OR
  •         You are married and your 2009 combined income was less than $31,500.

Residence Requirement
  •         You must own and occupy the property as your primary residence AND
  •         Your Real Estate Tax bill for that property will be increasing.

Once approved, applicants do not need to reapply to the program each year. All approved applicants are enrolled each successive year unless they no longer meet the eligibility requirements. Applications can be requested by calling 215-686-6442 and are available online


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When to retire? Social Security demystified


By Linda L. Riley
Have the recent strikes by French workers protesting raising the retirement age to 62 caught your attention? If not, maybe you are too busy worrying over your own retirement to pay much attention to what the French are doing.

Making the decision about when to begin collecting Social Security can be challenging; a number of factors must be weighed to arrive at the best choice for your circumstances.

Starting when you are first eligible, at age 62, may be appealing; but waiting longer will mean larger monthly checks. If you want to begin collecting, but you plan or need to continue working, it's crucial to understand the regulations about earnings.

Help understanding all of these factors and how they apply to you will be offered in a series of one-hour seminars being offered November 12 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center by the Social Security Administration. The seminars are free and open to the general public, but registration is required. To register, send an email to edward.lafferty@sdsa.gov of call 866-398-3469, ext. 29305.

The seminars will give people an opportunity to learn about their retirement benefits and plan for their financial futures. Topics will include how your benefit is figured; when to take benefits; rules for collecting benefits while working, family benefits for spouses, children, widows and widowers; and enrolling in Medicare.

A few factors to keep in mind: if you were born between Sept. 1, 1944 and Dec. 31, 1954, you must wait until you are 66 to receive full retirement benefits. If you were born before Sept. 1, 1944, full retirement age is 65. For those born from 1955 on, the age increases by two months a year until reaching 67 for those born in 1960 or later.


The seminars will take place on Friday, November 12, starting at 8:30 a.m., at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in center city, Philadelphia. The one-hour sessions will repeat throughout the day; starting times are: 8:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12:00 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 3:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Registration is required. To register, send an email to edward.lafferty@sdsa.gov of call 866-398-3469, ext. 29305.
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New protections on reverse mortgages


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Washington, D.C. -- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) now requires all HUD-approved reverse mortgage counselors to provide their clients with the National Council on Aging’s (NCOA) 28-page consumer booklet on reverse mortgages. 

In addition, counselors must complete an extra level of financial assessment to help prospective borrowers gain a greater understanding of financial risk and other factors that they need to consider to make a wise decision. 

“We are pleased to work with HUD to provide additional education and support to older adults seeking to tap their home equity through a reverse mortgage,” said Barbara R. Stucki, Ph.D., vice president of Home Equity Initiatives for NCOA. “We created these new tools to help older homeowners better understand their options and risks in using what is most often their most valuable financial asset -- their home.”

HUD released its Housing Counseling Handbook, which includes its new HECM reverse mortgage counseling protocol, in mid-July. Counselors are required to implement the protocol by Sept. 11, 2010. The new protocol is designed to strengthen consumer education for homeowners aged 62+ who seek a HUD-approved reverse mortgage. It includes NCOA’s booklet, counseling tool, and online benefits screening service.

Free copies of the NCOA booklet, Use Your Home to Stay at Home, are available in English or Spanish. Printed copies of the booklet can also be purchased on the website. 

Use Your Home to Stay at Home educates consumers on the benefits and challenges of using home equity to deal with financial challenges in later life. The booklet helps consumers determine if staying in their homes is the right decision for them, understand the trade-offs of using a reverse mortgage versus other home loans, and provides information on government programs that can help them stay at home.

Reverse mortgage counselors will also be required to complete a budget review with their clients, using NCOA’s Financial Interview Tool (FIT). This counseling tool, which was developed and tested by NCOA, helps prospective borrowers consider both immediate financial needs and long-term challenges that can make it hard to stay at home and benefit from a reverse mortgage.

Seniors with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level will also be required to complete a BenefitsCheckUp analysis as part of the counseling session. NCOA’s BenefitsCheckUp is the nation's most comprehensive Web-based service to screen for benefits programs for seniors with limited income and resources. It includes details on more than 2,000 public and private benefits programs.

“Through this holistic approach, we hope to facilitate discussions and decisions that are based on life of the borrower, and not the just the cost of the loan,” said Stucki. “FIT helps older homeowners consider all of their financial obligations and how they will meet them on an ongoing basis. Through BenefitsCheckUp, they can learn of services and benefits that can be an alternative or supplement to a reverse mortgage.”

For more information on the HUD HECM Program, visit the Department of Housing and Urban Development website
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Expert Help for Small Businesses


By Marcia Z. Siegal

 Have you always dreamed of starting your own business, but didn’t know where to begin? Or do you need help with the one you already have? There are a number of local resources available to help entrepreneurs, many offering services for free or at low-to-moderate cost.
 
There are more than 69,000 small businesses in Philadelphia and another 6,000 start each year, according to SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) Philadelphia. The organization offers support to small businesses, drawing on the expertise of volunteers who are current or retired  business executives, business owners and related experts. Among their services is free, individualized counseling to help evaluate a business idea or plan, stimulate business growth and ensure long-term stability.  SCORE also offers low-cost business training workshops and events   for start-up and established entrepreneurs.  
 
On September 28, SCORE Philadelphia joins with American Express for the AMEX Open Small Business Speed Coaching event  to be held at Community College of Philadelphia in Center City. Participants will be paired with a SCORE expert for a 45-minute free, individualized business counseling session. 
 

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Small Business Development Center (SBDC)   , a division of the Sol C. Snider Entrepreneurial Research Center of Wharton Entrepreneurial Programs, is one of 18 SBDCs in Pennsylvania. According to the Wharton SBDC’s  website,  the center annually provides more than  16,000 hours of consulting to 600 entrepreneurs and small businesses; offers over 70 educational programs attended by more than 1,500 entrepreneurs and small business owners; answers over 10,000 requests for information and assistance; and helps clients obtain over $10,000,000 in start-up and expansion capital.
 
One of the handy tools on the Wharton site is the "Frequently Asked Questions" which presents information on key aspects of business planning and operations. The center’s programs and events calendar  and course listings highlight a full range of offerings for aspiring and established business owners.
 
The Temple Small Business Development Center , an outreach center of the university's Fox School of Business and Management, also offers a number of services. In addition to free one-on-one personalized consulting  http://sbm.temple.edu/sbdc/consulting.html; the center offers creative services
to help entrepreneurs develop a company image and brand identity; sponsors an entrepreneurial success workshop series   and other training programs and provides free business legal advice through the  Temple University SBDC Legal Clinic .  
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Organized finances = Peace of mind


By Marcia Z. Siegal
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Marsha Rubin, a CPA and financial planner, recalls the client who never reconciled his bank accounts and typically brought her his statements and receipts in a big box every tax season.

One year he also produced a series of letters he had received from the IRS, all of them unopened. It turned out that he was to be audited. The letters had grown more threatening as he repeatedly failed to respond. The last letter warned that a levy was to be placed on his property.

The situation was quickly resolved once Rubin got him to pay attention, she says, but it happened just in time.

A CPA and financial planner with Wharton Financial Services in Wilmington, DE and Wallingford, PA , Rubin offers some handy tips for organizing your finances that  may ultimately save both time and money.


Separate financial information
Separate bills, letters from the IRS, credit card and bank correspondence from the rest of your mail on a daily basis. A simple solution is to put these items in a basket or other convenient container and attend to them promptly. 

Reconcile your bank accounts
Check for any unusual banking or credit card activity or charges that could signal fraud or other problems. Once bills are paid, information should be stored for at least several months in case of future billing or service disputes or other issues that may arise. Since most banks no longer mail cancelled checks, save bank statements for any needed receipts.

Store financial records safely
Make a list of checking and savings accounts, credit cards, utility accounts, and tax bills and other debts. Rubin recommends storing financial information in one central place over the longer term, preferably in a fireproof, locked steel file cabinet. Not only can you easily access these items, so, too, can your executor/power of attorney/or others who may need to get hold of the material in the event you die or are incapacitated.

For tax purposes
Keep the following tax information for at least six years, and preferably seven, in case of an IRS audit: tax returns; property taxes; mortgage payments; rental property income; capital gain or loss information; charitable donations; deductable medical and educational expenses; business receipts from any home office or other self-employment venture; banking statements with relevant receipts.

Maintain health records
Keep all health and disability insurance policy information, receipts and records. Even if you change your health or disability insurers, store prior policy information since charges and disputes can still occur based on the time the earlier policies were in effect.

Warranties and service contracts
Keep them for as long as they are in force and for several years afterwards for the reasons stated above.

Keep permanently
Life insurance policies
Mortgage documents and payment information
Wills and living wills
Trust documents
Stock, bond and annuity certificates
Power of Attorney designations
Funeral and burial prepayment plans

Make a will
Rubin says that while wills are essential, only about 50 percent of adults in the U.S. actually have one.

“People don’t want to think about dying, “ she says. “I encourage them to think about the problems that might occur for the people left behind. The executor or executrix, often a spouse or other close relative, would  have to come in and deal with a chaotic situation at a time when that person is in deep mourning.”

In addition to the basic parts of the will, she urges, “Make your wishes known about how you want specific valuable or sentimental items distributed —  for instance jewelry, antiques, or family heirlooms. Put that in your will  as an addendum page or in a separate document. Keep it updated, and make sure your executor and  attorney have a copy of the document. You might want to write a letter or even make a video explaining the reasons for your decisions.  I have seen family arguments over material things that almost become bloodbaths.”

Items needed immediately after death
“Put together a list of where everything is: cash, wills, life insurance policies, bills, checking and savings account information, and make sure your attorney has a copy. Keep some liquidity in a checking or savings account that can be used to pay taxes and other bills that come due after death, and before a will is probated. Make sure there is a joint signer for the account,” she advises.   "These items should not be kept in a safe deposit box, which gets sealed after death and is later inventoried."

Organizing your finances also ensures that the assets you accumulated are available when needed. “I had a client whose husband died,” Rubin recalls. “After some time had passed, she happened upon a life insurance policy that was jammed in the back of a desk drawer.  She never would have known about it but for that accidental discovery. That’s not the kind of thing you’d want to be overlooked.”

For more information, including referrals to financial professionals and speaker resources, contact the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants
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Get wise to scams!


By Marcia Z. Siegal


thief.jpg

The stranger who knocked on the older woman’s door wasn't wearing a mask or carrying a gun. In fact, he looked perfectly respectable, even sympathetic. He told her that her son was in trouble and needed $300 immediately.

When the woman said she had no cash on hand, the man offered to take her to her bank to make a withdrawal. There was no time to lose, he urged. He drove her to the bank and waited outside while she withdrew the money, then drove her back home.

When the woman’s son called later that day to check on her, she worriedly asked him if he was all right. “I’m fine,” he assured her. “Why are you asking?” Then she told him the story.

Financial exploitation is the fastest rising form of elder abuse, according to Joe Snyder, director of older adult protective services at Philadelphia Corporation for Aging and former president of the National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA). That “relative-in-distress” call is one of the more popular senior scams out there, says Snyder, now NAPSA’s public policy chairman.


The Met Life Mature Market Institute (MMI) published a 2009 study on financial exploitation, in conjunction with the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Broken Trust: Elders, Family and Finances reports that financial exploitation costs older American  at least 2.6 billion dollars each year.

And the perpetrators are not always strangers. The conviction of Brooke Astor's son Anthony Marshall, as reported in the New York Times  demonstrates that elder abuse, financial and otherwise, can occur in any social group and include your nearest and dearest. In fact, family members comprise 55% of those financially exploiting the elderly, according to the Broken Trust report. It estimates that for each reported incident of elder financial abuse, another four or more go unreported.

The trusting nature of many older persons, combined with the fact that many own their homes and have accumulated savings and other assets, make them an attractive target for  financial abuse, from family members, caregivers or strangers. Factors like loneliness and dementia can make them even more vulnerable, says Snyder.

Financial abuse by family members typically involves redirecting or stealing benefits check or getting access to a credit card and running up untold bills, according to Snyder. Strangers often exploit elderly victims through scams, he says. Among them are:
·        ‘Relative in distress’
·        Predatory lending
·        Repair and contracting scams
·        Telemarketing, charity, prize and sweepstake scams
·        Medicare card scams, and
·        Identity theft

In the latter instance, for example, the victim may receive a call from someone claiming to represent a bank, credit agency or other official financial organization. The older person is then asked to supply key information , such as account number, Social Security or PIN number so that  the ‘fraud’ can be righted.

PCA’s Stop Senior Scams website offers some key tips to help seniors (and anyone) avoid becoming a victim: 
·        If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
·        When it comes to a "now or never" opportunity, choose "never."
·        Keep account numbers, codes and passwords private.
·        Shred bills, junk mail and receipts when discarding them.
·        Don't be afraid to report your experiences. If you feel uncomfortable, tell someone.
 
In Philadelphia, elder abuse, including financial exploitation, can be reported to an Older Adult Protective Services investigator  24/7 by calling the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040.
 

Bank staff can play a vital role in spotting signs of financial abuse, says Snyder, who partnered with Wachovia Bank (now Wells Fargo) in Philadelphia to start a financial exploitation training program. Key signs can include changes in an elderly customer’s usual banking habits such as large or unusual bank withdrawals; sudden increases in credit or debit activity; the sudden involvement of others in an elderly person’s financial affairs; or directing that bank statements be sent to other than the older person’s home. 
 
Recently, PCA began partnering with the city, with the support of the Mayor, District Attorney and Police Commissioner, to form a Task Force addressing financial exploitation of the elderly.  The aim is to improve sharing of information and coordination in these cases and “hopefully it will lead to more prosecutions,” Snyder says. 
 
For the first time, federal legislation was passed to address abuse, neglect and exploitation of the elderly,  as part of the Health Care Reform Act . Funds now need to be appropriated to support the act's provisions, Snyder said. In the case of Elder Justice, these include funding for state and local adult protective service programs; financing nearly 1,700 more investigators of elder abuse nationwide; providing for state demonstration grants to pilot new programs of elder abuse prevention; creating a coordinating council to make recommendations on elder abuse prevention, and more.

“Adult Protective Services stands to benefit most if the EJA is fully funded,” Snyder says.  He expressed satisfaction that after many years of trying, the Elder Justice Act was passed, but said that without adequate funding it won't be effective. 
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More Medicare recipients now qualify for "Extra Help" with Prescriptions


By Marcia Z. Siegal
Expanded eligibility guidelines that took effect this year have made it easier for eligible low-income Medicare beneficiaries to qualify for help with prescription costs.  

The Low Income Subsidy Program, commonly known as “Extra Help,” can lower Medicare Part D prescription co-pays and premiums, and help pay for prescription drugs during the coverage gap or “doughnut hole.”

LIS/Extra Help is estimated to be worth an average of $3,900 per year, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA), which administers the program. Qualified individuals can enroll in the Low Income Subsidy/Extra Help program at any time.

Assistance eligibility guidelines were expanded as of January 1, 2010, in conjunction with the new Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act (MIPPA).

As a result, life insurance policies no longer count as a resource and the financial assistance applicants regularly receive from someone else to pay household expenses—i.e. food, mortgage, rent, heating fuel or gas, electricity, water, and property taxes – no longer counts as income for determining  eligibility for the Extra Help program. 

In addition, unless an applicant opts out, applications to SSA for LIS/Extra Help prescription benefits will now be forwarded automatically to the states so that individuals can also be considered for their state’s Medicare Savings Program (MSP).


 

The Medicare Savings Program can help qualified individuals with premiums and expenses for Medicare Part B (medical insurance) and also Part A (hospital insurance) in certain cases.

“We encourage Medicare beneficiaries to consult with an APPRISE counselor to find out if they are eligible for these programs,” says Bruce Bornmann, program manager for Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.  APPRISE is a federally funded health insurance counseling program for adults 60 and over. Philadelphia Corporation for Aging coordinates the APPRISE program in Philadelphia. 



“Consultations are free, and counselors can assist with applications, including helping consumers file applications immediately online,” Bornmann explains.  “People have everything to gain by meeting with an APPRISE counselor and, in doing so, may also learn about other benefit programs for which they may be eligible.” 



For more information, including APPRISE office locations, click here, or call the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging Helpline at 215-765-9040. 
  
 

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Is a reverse mortgage a good choice?


By Cathy Green


You hope to stay in your home for the foreseeable future, but it’s becoming a problem.

Real estate taxes, insurance, mortgage payments, maintenance, needed repairs are beginning to strain your budget, already stressed by a shaky economy.


This is one case where the cliché “You’re not getting any younger” may be a plus. If you’re 62 or older, you may qualify for a reverse mortgage. It’s a loan you won’t have to pay back until you no longer live there. 
 

If you’re married, both of you must live in the home. It’s strongly recommended that both of you apply. If only one person obtains the reverse mortgage and then dies, the survivor must pay off the mortgage. But if both are listed as borrowers, as long as the home is the principal residence of one, the requirement is met. The loan amount is based on the house’s appraised value, the younger partner’s age and the current interest rate.

The Home Equity Conversion Mortgage Program, as it’s called, is backed by the Federal Housing Administration and regulated by HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The borrower may choose to receive a lump sum, monthly payments or a line of credit.


Key qualifications, questions
To qualify, you must be at least 62 and generally have at least 50 percent equity remaining in your home. It must be considered your principal residence (where you reside at least six months of the year).

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And it is, for many people.

“The program is as good as it’s ever been,” said Walt Gephart, of Acre Mortgage, citing recent changes that have reduced or eliminated fees connected with reverse mortgages. “In Philadelphia a lot of seniors are struggling to make ends meet.”

Don Graves, 10-year reverse mortgage specialist at Wells Fargo, asks prospective borrowers four questions:
• Do you want to stay in your home?
• Do you need more money?
• Is this the best alternative for you?
• Will you be able to pay real estate taxes, homeowners’ insurance
and upkeep expenses, after you do the loan?

Graves cautions prospective borrowers to do their homework before committing themselves. “It [the program] has recently attracted a few bad guys,” he said, “and unfortunately, they have targeted many Philadelphia seniors.”


HUD safeguards
HUD has established some safeguards. Borrowers are required to meet
with a counselor, who will lay out possible alternatives and problems. For example, getting such a loan could affect your eligibility for Medicaid and other government benefits.

Approved counselors are available through CCCS, Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Delaware Valley (1-800-989-2227), which is offering free one-on-one counseling through June 30, thanks to a recent grant. The normal charge is $125, according to Patricia Hasson, president of CCCS.

“A reverse mortgage can enable a senior to age in place and provide an
important source of additional income in the event of an emergency,” she said.


How to decide
Although most lenders have been reducing or eliminating origination fees in a shaky economy, reverse mortgages are still expensive. There’s the cost of an appraisal, mortgage insurance and interest on the unpaid balance, which can significantly reduce the amount of home equity.
So how to decide whether the program is for you?

A good place to start is the HUD website, where you can download a booklet, Use Your Home to Stay at Home, or call the National Council on Aging, 1-800-510-0301, to request it.

This will advise you of other options like home equity loans and the financial implications of a reverse mortgage.

To find out how much you might be able to borrow under the program, visit the finance section of AARP's website and scroll down to Mortgages.

The amount can vary widely, depending on borrower’s age, zip code and the value of the home. The limit is $625,500, but most are considerably lower.


Cathy Green was a reporter and copy editor for the Philadelphia Bulletin, and is now a part-time copy editor at the Philadelphia Tribune.

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Credit protections, cautions


By Marcia Z. Siegal  
New federal credit card regulations took effect earlier this year following the passage of the 2009 Credit Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act (CARD). The CARD Act helps protect consumers from rate hikes and fees. It also provides them with a 45-day notice period for interest rate and certain fee changes,  in order for them to make the best  possible decision based on their individual circumstances, according to Patrician Hasson, president and executive director of  the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Delaware Valley. 
 
According to the National Consumer Law Center, consumers need to be wary of loopholes in the new law. For instance, credit card companies can raise interest rates as they choose, as long as they do not do so retroactively on existing balances. Or, cards may advertise “No Interest for 6 Months;” however, if consumers fail to pay off the entire balance in six months, the company can charge a huge retroactive interest, going back to the date of purchase. 


 
Here are some key protections the Act does provide, as noted on the Federal Reserve website:  


45 days notice before credit card companies can increase interest rates; change certain fees (such as annual fees, cash advance fees, and late fees) that apply to consumers’ accounts; or make other significant changes to the terms of their card. (There are some exceptions to this, such as if consumers have a time-limited introductory rate or a variable rate tied to an index.)


Information must be posted on the consumer’s monthly credit card bill about the length of time it will take to pay off the balance if minimum payments are made and how much would need to be paid monthly to pay off the balance in three years.


Payments over the minimum must be directed toward the highest balance first.


Rates cannot be increased for the first 12 months after an account is opened.  (There are some exceptions to this, such as the variable and introductory rates described above.)


Increased interest rates will only apply to charges in effect after the rate increase, not to prior balances.

Consumers must opt in for over-the-limit transactions and fees. Otherwise, over-the-limit transactions may be refused.


Credit cards must be mailed or delivered at least 21 days before the bill is due. Payment cut-off times before 5 p.m. on the due date are illegal.


Consumers under 21 will need to prove they are able to make payments or must have a co-signer in order to open an account.


CCCS’ Patricia Hasson also note that under the Act, card issuers are restricted from opening a new account unless the company  first considers the consumer’s ability to repay under the terms of the agreement. “To satisfy this requirement,” she says, “creditors will likely begin using income estimation models supplied to them by credit bureaus.”  She advises that consumers review their credit reports – consumers are allowed one free credit report every 12 months from each of the three reporting bureaus — and correct for any inaccuracies.    
 
 

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Tackling tough issues of financial planning


By Marcia Z. Siegal


A husband and wife in their late 60s consulted a financial planner for the first time when deciding whether to sell their current house and stake their money into a retirement home down South. But once they started talking, it turned out they had some very different ideas which they had never shared with one another.  

Financial planner Jacquelyn Basso, CPA, said she wound up having a far-ranging conversation with them.

“It became the couple’s whole vision of their retirement,” she said. “They were living on a fixed income. What would their future expenses look like? What were their assets? Was there a possibility that they might outlive these assets, and did they need to reallocate  them? What about planning for long term care and health insurance?  And did they intend to spend all their money or have money to leave a legacy?

"It turned out the two of them had very different opinions about that last question, which they had never discussed or planned for before,” said Basso, who chairs the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA) Personal Financial Planning Committee. 
  
 
In its booklet entitled, “What You Should Know About Financial Planning,” the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc.  defines financial planning as “the process of meeting your life goals through the proper management of your finances.”

Life’s transitions, such as   buying a home, paying for a child’s college education or planning for retirement, are some key impetuses for financial planning. In particular, Basso said, the vision of retirement planning is changing. “In the past, most retirees could look forward to guaranteed monthly retirement income for life from a defined benefit pension plan and Social Security,” she says. Now such defined benefit pensions are increasingly a minority, yet the life expectancy post-retirement can be 30 years or more. “Many people are now depending on their 401Ks for retirement income, but they are not saving enough.” 


The current recession has heightened the need to evaluate personal financial directions in the face of many declining home and investment values and widespread, often prolonged unemployment.  However, financial planning is really for anybody anytime, Basso stresses. Even those at lower income levels can benefit by at least some aspect of financial planning, such as having a budget, she advises.  While goals can be narrowly defined and short-term, ideally, financial planning is a life plan, this professional points out, using an acronym she coined to describe it: “BRITRE”— budget, risk management (insurance), investment planning,  tax planning, retirement planning, and estate planning. 
 

Financial planners can be accountants, estate planners, insurance agents, investment advisers, or stock brokers and are regulated in terms of the services they provide.   Many have earned the Certified Financial Planner, Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFc), or Personal Financial Specialist (CPA/PFS) designation. Financial planners may work on salary; fixed or hourly fees; commissions on the products they sell; or a combination of fees and commissions.  Often, they collaborate with professionals outside their sphere of expertise to create and implement clients’ financial plans.


The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission advises that when hiring a financial planner, “you should know exactly what services you need, what services the planner can deliver, and any limitations on what he or she can recommend. In addition, you should understand what services you're paying for, how much those services cost, and how the planner gets paid.” 


More information, including how to check whether your prospective financial planner holds the credentials he or she claims or has ever been disciplined for unlawful/unethical professional conduct, is available through the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. booklet, “Questions to Ask when Choosing a Financial Planner.”


Information on personal financial planning, including how to find a local CPA financial planner,  is also available from the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants. 
 

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After spouse's death, be very careful with financial decisions


By Rebecca VanderMeulen


The weeks after a spouse's death are weeks of grief. And they can wreak havoc on your finances.
You may be particularly vulnerable after your spouse dies, so you should avoid making financial decisions for a while, experts agree.


When widows and widowers are ready, it's best to talk to a financial advisor who is not a relative, is a good listener and doesn't push clients into decisions.  And if there are any legal questions, see a lawyer.


The only way to make sure your money and property go to the right people upon your death is to work with an estate planner to write a will, says Katherine Weiss, managing attorney at SeniorLAW Center.

 

Some possible problems
 
There are many problems that can arise.  Perhaps a woman owns the house she and her husband live in, but she dies and his name isn't on the title. Suddenly, he has lost both his wife and his home.


Or maybe a financial advisor convinces an 80-year-old widow to put the couple's savings into a lifetime annuity that guarantees payments for the rest of her life. This may not make sense for the widow, but it means a commission for the advisor.


SeniorLAW Center's Weiss describes one case in which a retired city of Philadelphia employee received a pension and assumed his wife would receive it upon his death. But when he died, she learned she wasn't eligible for pension payments because they married after the husband had retired, and had a common-law marriage before that. (One of the volunteer attorneys at SeniorLAW Center, an independent nonprofit center providing legal services for older Pennsylvanians, was able to secure pension payments for the widow, Weiss adds.) 

 
Assume nothing
 
You might think your estate will be passed on to your spouse when you die, but this isn't always the case, Weiss says. Sometimes, children from a prior relationship are entitled to benefits, and sometimes, seniors assume their relationship is a common-law marriage when it isn't.


According to Philadelphia Legal Assistance, no new common-law marriages were recognized in Pennsylvania after Jan. 1, 2005. To be considered married, couples had to have stated their intent to be married and presented themselves in public as married before that date.


Whether you are married or not is an important distinction because Social Security benefits and pensions are awarded differently to couples in different situations, Weiss says, so it's important to understand the rules behind each set of benefits.  She says couples who aren't sure about their legal marital status should meet with a lawyer.


Set aside the documents

 
After you plan your estate, advises Catherine Seeber, principal at Wescott Financial Advisory Group, you should put important documents in a binder, along with your will.


Examples of documents to include would be a net worth statement, life-insurance policies, financial papers showing ownership of a business or property, a power of attorney, a list of the contents of any safe-deposit boxes and extra keys to those boxes. Detailed wishes for a funeral should be included.Widows and widowers in tough financial positions may contact SeniorLAW Center's intake line (215-988-1242) for information and referrals.

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Still time for year-end tax savings


By Marcia Z. Siegal


While the end 2009 is fast approaching, there’s still time to save on this year’s taxes. There are a lot of opportunities out there, says James J. Newhard, a Paoli-based CPA, and a member of the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants.


Among them, he advises, is charitable giving, “a win-win all the way around.” There are also potential tax savings available by accelerating some payments and deferring others, Newhard says.

Some possibilities for consideration are listed below. Check with your tax/financial adviser about what is right for your situation and whether you qualify for these tax benefits. For more information, visit www.irs.gov or www.picpa.org. (Many frequently asked questions of CPAs can be found at: http://www.picpa.org/ask/public/search.aspx)


Charitable Giving
Stock: Even in this recession, you may have one or more stocks whose value increased.  Donate appreciated stock to a qualified charity to avoid paying capital gains tax and lower your taxable income.


Cash:  If you have the means and intention to donate cash to charity, do it before year-end to add to your deductions.


Used cars, clothing, furniture or other property can also be donated to qualified charitable organizations to reduce your taxable income and lower your tax bill.  You will need to itemize and substantiate the fair market value of the goods or property you donate and keep any written acknowledgment you receive from the charity. Information on car valuation is available from the Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com). For information on valuing other items, visit www.irs.gov or ask your tax professional.


Home Energy Improvement Tax Credits
If you purchase and install specific products, such as energy-efficient windows, insulation, doors, roofs, and heating and cooling equipment for existing homes, you can receive a tax credit for 30% of the cost, up to $1,500, for improvements "placed in service" from January 1, 2009, through December 31, 2010. While this calls for fast action if you want a tax credit for 2009, “it’s to the vendors’ advantage to accommodate the request and deliver as quickly as possible,” Newhard says. For more information on federal energy tax credits, visit www.energystar.gov. State and local tax benefits may also be available; check with your tax adviser.


Accelerating Deductible Expenses:
Consider paying deductible expenses in December rather than in January. Some examples:
Send in your January mortgage payment during December to reap the tax benefit for 2009.


If have a stock that dropped in value this year, it may be beneficial to sell it at a loss to help offset capital gains you may have incurred in other areas, such as mutual funds.  (Up to $3,000 of capital losses in excess of gains can offset other ordinary income – any losses in excess of the allowable threshold may be carried forward to the next tax year.)


If you are self-employed, accelerate the estimated payment for your quarterly state and local taxes due in January by paying them in December.

Deferring Taxable Expenses
Consider deferring any year-end bonus until January, if possible, so it will not be taxable until 2010.


Required minimum distributions from traditional IRAs or retirement accounts were suspended for 2009. (Traditionally retirees were required to take the minimum annual distribution at age 70 and ½.) Therefore, retirees (or beneficiaries of deceased plan participants/IRA owners) can postpone receipt of this taxable income until 2010.

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Planning for the long haul and wishing for a crystal ball


By Linda L. Riley


Can you afford to buy long-term care insurance? Can you afford not to? If you buy it, will it be enough? What other options exist?


These questions begin to nag, as we edge closer to retirement age, or watch our loved ones wrestle with them. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 70 percent of individuals over age 65 will require at least some type of long-term care services during their lifetime; and more than 40 percent will need care in a nursing home for some period of time.  


What about Medicare and Medicaid
?
Many people believe—wrongly—that Medicare will pay for long-term care. Medicare pays only for up to 100 days of skilled nursing care under very specific circumstances, following a hospital stay. It does not pay for what would be considered “assisted living” or custodial care, such as assistance with eating, bathing, dressing and toileting, even if those services are provided in a nursing home.  If you have an extremely low income and limited assets, and if you require a nursing home level of care, Medicaid may pay for care either in your home or in a nursing facility. But Medicaid does not pay for assisted living services if they are all that is needed.
 
The best plans go awry
My father and stepmother planned for their future as best they could. They bought long-term care insurance (LTCI), which they paid on for 10 years. They then bought in to a continuing care community (CCRC), plunking down more than $200,000 as an “entrance fee” and paying almost $4000 in monthly fees. (These seem like very high numbers, and they are – until you consider that one year in a nursing home costs close to $90,000.)
 

They had barely settled in to their apartment when catastrophic illnesses hit both of them.
My father died before the 90-day waiting period for the long-term care insurance had passed; my stepmother now resides in the nursing facility. In just nine months, they spiraled downward from moving into the independent living apartment, to assisted living, to nursing care.
 

To buy or not to buy?
Was the LTCI a good investment? Did they make a good move, buying into the CCRC? Well, yes and no. Both are a gamble. In my father’s case, he paid out far more than he would have, given the short duration of his need for nursing care. On the other hand, my stepmother is guaranteed care for the rest of her life, with no increase in her monthly fee; and she can get some money back, through her long term care policy.

 
One important factor to bear in mind is that you have to be healthy at the outset, to be able to buy long term care insurance; likewise, you must be healthy to be “admitted” to a continuing care retirement community. So in both cases, getting started early can be key. But the bottom line is really – what is your bottom line? 


 
Here are some comparative numbers of various kinds of care, from in-home, to assisted living, and continuing care communities - and the reimbursement from a basic long term care policy:

Care Provider or Product Daily Monthly Annual
 
In-home care costs*
(for 6 hours/day, 7 days/week of care – depending on the situation, an individual might need only one hour a day – or could need more than the example here)

$120*

$3720

 

$44,000

 


Assisted living costs*
(24-hour care)
$120
$3720
$44,000

Nursing home costs*
$240
$7440
$89,280

LTCI costs**
$1284
and up
 

LTCI pays**
$150
$4650
$55,800

CCRC
(studio apt - buy-in of $61,000/ $80,000 and up)***
$2,400/
$1,400
$16,800 -
28,800 up 
 

CCRC
(one-bedroom for two people -buy-in $185,000/$210,000 and up) ***
$3400/2400
(for two)
$28,800 -
$40,800 up
 
        


* Based on Genworth Financial 2009 Cost of Care Survey 
 
**According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,  the annual premium for a basic policy providing up to $150/day for facility care with a 90-day waiting period and a 3-year limit or lifetime maximum of about $165,000.Cost ranges from $1284 if purchased at age 50 to $2448 at age 65, and up.
 
***Two examples are given; lower buy-in correlates with higher monthly cost, and vice versa. Costs are based on CCRCs in the Philadelphia area – see below for clarification

 
The pricing above is based on true costs for CCRCs in the Philadelphia area, which generally include all utilities, maintenance, taxes, security, scheduled transportation and at least one meal per day. Some include up to three meals, housekeeping, linen service, and  comprehensive health services. As a result, there is a wide range of pricing options, and consumers should research carefully exactly what is included.

 
Consumers should also bear in mind that there is a significant trade-off between the cost of buy-in and monthly cost. For example, at one facility, a studio apartment would require an $80,000 buy-in and monthly payment would be  $1400; while buy-in at another facility would be lower, at $61,000 – but monthly payments would be higher, at $2,400. So if you have sufficient funds for the higher initial outlay, but want to limit your monthly costs, you would likely choose the option with the lower monthly payment, unless the services included differ greatly.

 
There’s another “wrinkle” in the equation – some facilities offer a continuum of care, but on a “pay as you go” basis. So, for example, you might pay an entrance or community fee of as little as $6,000, and monthly rates of $3,000 for two people in a one-bedroom apartment. But if you later need assisted living services, the cost goes up to $3,775 a month for one person; plus the cost of care, which ranges from $500 to $1,100 per month. If there are two people, there is an additional basic monthly fee of $800 for a second person not in need of assisted living services; more if services are needed. Nursing care is higher still.

 
Conclusion
As stated at the beginning, the bottom line is – what is your bottom line? The numbers above offer a glimpse at the shape of things, but in the end the only way to determine what is best, and most affordable, for you, is to research the various options.  It’s also worth noting that the figures presented here are for the Philadelphia area; less costly care is available in other parts of the state, and the nation.
 
In the end, short of having a crystal ball, it’s impossible to know how your health may change, and what care you might need. But there are steps you can take to be prepared.

 
Following are some resources to help with the planning process:
  


The official government website for Medicare and Medicaid provides a variety of valuable planning tools, for comparing medicare prescription drug and health plans, evaluating home health agencies, and planning for long term care needs, among others. 
 
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website provides an explanation of long term care insurance, cost estimates and information on other options for financing care, and provides an extensive list of links to other resources. 
 

Consumer Reports offers an overview of the pros and cons of long term care insurance, and myths versus facts of common sales pitches. 
 
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners website offers consumer guides that provide a very thorough explanation of long term care insurance (and other types of insurance) and provides links to state insurance departments. 
 
The Gilbert Guide web pages offer extensive search capabilities, by zip code and type of facility, which provides a good starting point. However, the information on facilities is not necessarily accurate, so it’s advisable to contact the facilities directly. This site also provides articles on  topics including financial and legal matters, caring for someone with Alzheimer’s Disease and how to find home care.
 
The Pennsylvania Health Care Association, provides guidelines for choosing a Personal Care/Assisted Living facility or nursing home and a search function to locate facilities by county. 
 
The Genworth Financial 2009 Cost of Care Survey  provides cost comparisons, broken down geographically, which can help locate affordable alternatives if moving is an option.

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Medicare plan eliminated? Here's help


Specially trained counselors answer questions, explain options


Some Medicare plans are beling eliminated for 2010, but alternatives are available. APPRISE, the state health insurance assistance program, will present information sessions at various locations in Philadelphia during November and December.  Enrollment has begun, and runs through Dec. 31.

Participants should bring their Medicare card, other insurance cards and a complete list of medications; and any letters they have received about their current coverage.

Click here to find an information session.



APPRISE is a service of the PA Department of Aging that offers free and impartial information and assistance with Medicare benefits. In Philadelphia, the APPRISE program is coordinated through Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. 

Extensive information on Medicare insurance and prescription plans is also available at medicare.gov. You can find plans in your area and compare enrollment costs, copays and coverage, to determine what plan is best for you. The site also includes a broad range of  information to help planning, including a long term care planning tool; quality comparisons of nursing homes; information on hospital outcomes; and results from a survey of patients about the quality of care they received during a recent hospital stay.

For additional information on APPRISE, PACE, PACENET and other benefit programs, visit PCA's website.

 

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Help weatherizing, keeping warm


By Enid Rosenblatt Winter is almost upon us, but it’s not too late to make home modifications that lower your heating bills and conserve energy.
 
Help is available through the Energy Coordinating Agency of Philadelphia (215-988-0929)  including weatherization help, workshops and energy audits. Some services are based on income eligibility, others are available to all.


Energy conservation workshops
The Energy Coordinating Agency of Philadelphia (ECA) is offering energy conservation workshops in every neighborhood this fall and winter. Participants learn how to save energy and receive free literature and materials, such as window weatherization kits.
 
“Workshops can be at senior centers or churches,” Robinson says, “but we are very flexible and will schedule them at any location and at any time including weekends.”
 
To schedule a workshop for your group, you may contact Colette Davis at ECA, 215-609-1046.

Weatherization assistance
 
Thanks to the American Revitalization and Recovery Act (ARRA), ECA is able to weatherize many more homes through the Weatherization Assistance Program  (215-609-1476)  this year, and also to put more than twice as much money into each home.
 
“The limit has increased from $3,000 to $6,500 per home, and we hope to do things we’ve never been able to do before,” says Liz Robinson, ECA’s executive director. In addition, the eligibility level has expanded to 200 percent of the poverty level ($44,124 for a family of four).
 
ECA is now able to replace inefficient old furnaces with high-efficiency condensing furnaces. Through this, Robinson adds, “in combination with air sealing and insulation work, we are hoping to achieve much higher energy savings, on the order of 40 to 50 percent, compared to 20 to 25 percent in the past. Our goal is to restore affordability for a lot of people.” 
  
Hoping to weatherize about 1,500 homes this year, ECA is getting a list of high energy users from utility companies and informing them they are eligible. First come, first served. The Weatherization Assistance Program for low-income families is funded by the federal Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services

Energy AuditsAvailable
Through Home Performance with Energy Star, a national program overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency, ECA provides free energy audits to help families that do not qualify for the Weatherization Assistance Program to make their homes more energy efficient. ECA’s website, www.ecasavesenergy.org, includes a table of federal tax credits available for installation items such as high-efficiency furnaces, Energy Star appliances and Energy Star windows.
 
“Tax credits have increased significantly,” Robinson points out. “For example, you can get a credit of up to $1,500 for installation of a high-efficiency furnace. First, insulate your home to reduce leaks or air infiltration, Robinson advises, and then install smaller equipment. “Equipment made today is much more efficient,” she says. 
  

Neighborhood Energy Center Services and Locations
ECA has 14 Neighborhood Energy Centers (NECs) — one-stop shops for low-income energy services. Trained counselors help families obtain grants and utility payment agreements. They assist with applications for emergency assistance to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), provide budget counseling and conservation and home repair programs that offer more permanent solutions to the problem of energy affordability, such as ECA’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). 
  
ECA will sponsor a conference on LIHEAP and other energy programs Thursday, Nov. 19, at Friends Center, 1501 Cherry St. To register, you may contact Lorraine Horton at ECA, 215-609-1047. 
 
Neighborhood Energy Centers
• ACORN Housing, 215-765-1221
• Carroll Park Community Council Inc., 215-877-1157
• Center in the Park, 215-848-7722
• Congreso de Latinos Unidos Inc., 215-763-8870
• Diversified Community Services, 215-336-3511
• Friends Neighborhood Guild, 215-923-1544
• Greater Philadelphia Asian Social Services, 215-456-0308
• New Kensington Community Development Center, 215-427-0350
• Nicetown Community Development Center, 215-329-1827
• The Partnership Community Development Corporation, 215-307-4917
• Southwest Community Development Corporation, 215-729-0800
• Strawberry Mansion, 215-235-7505
• United Communities Southeast Philadelphia, 215-467-8700
• We Never Say Never Assn., 215-452-0440 
 

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Many veterans' benefits untappped


Benefit counseling available

Thousands of eligible veterans and their families are not taking advantage of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health and pension benefits to which they may be entitled.

These benefits range from healthcare and disability benefits to monetary assistance for personal care and adult day services, respite services for family caregivers, and housing in VA retirement, assisted living and nursing home facilities.

Most veterans of the Vietnam War are 60 or over, most Korean War veterans are over 70 and most World War II veterans are 85-plus, well within the range where aging support services may be needed, Ronald Pennypacker points out. He is director of the Governor's Veterans Outreach and Assistance Center (GVOAC) in Boyertown. One of five centers in Pennsylvania, it serves veterans in Philadelphia, its suburbs, and Berks, Lehigh and Northampton counties.

Of an estimated 1.2 million veterans in Pennsylvania, Pennypacker notes, "only a small percentage ever sought help from the VA."

Many put their service behind them after they leave the military, and don't pay attention to what future benefits may be available, says Pennypacker, whose office makes regular outreach visits to provide information and counseling.

Pride is often an issue, he adds. "Many vets don't want to take something from those who may need it more. I tell them that Congress provides VA benefits based on need. They should take advantage of this because the funding is there for them."

 
Health benefits underutilized
 
The most underutilized benefit is also one of the most basic -- the VA healthcare system. It offers medical care for free or at a modest co-payment to veterans who meet financial eligibility requirements. In addition, veterans must be enrolled in order to access VA benefits for residential facilities, personal care, and other aging and disability support services.
 
Disability pensions
 
Another often under-utilized benefit? Many low-income veterans are unaware they may qualify for a disability pension for a disability not related to their military service, according to Pennypacker. Financially eligible applicants must have at least 90 days of military service, at least one of which must be during what the VA defines as a period of war (not necessarily overseas).

Some veterans may have a disability that did result from military service, but never filed a claim for compensation. Often this includes "presumptive disabilities," like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or Agent Orange-related problems not immediately recognized as diagnostic conditions.

"I had two vets in Philadelphia who recently filed PTSD claims based on their World War II experiences," Pennypacker says. "They helped liberate the death camps and now, more than 50 years later, they realized they were still suffering the psychological wounds of PTSD as a result of their experiences."

To make an appointment for benefits counseling or applications or for more information, veterans and family members can call 1-800-247-3333.

GVOAC representatives periodically visit two Philadelphia satellite centers: Vet Center, 101 E. Olney Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19123 (215-924-4670) and Veterans Resource Center, 801 Arch St., Philadelphia, PA 19107 (215-627-0238). 
  
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Squirreling it away


Humor by Alisa Singer squirrel.jpeg
Back when we were all fat and comfortable, wrapped in the security of our bloated brokerage accounts (who knew then that it was bubble wrap!), people would talk about the "Number." In Baby Boomer parlance the "Number" is the amount of money you need to have in the bank to be able to retire and still maintain the lifestyle you so richly deserve.  
 Of course that's all academic now since none of us will be able to retire, ever; but I’ve been trying to think of who might be able to provide a guiding philosophy for this thorny question.  And I thought of squirrels, because they are obliged to make decisions like this every year during their entire adult lives.


You see, when squirrels gather acorns and nuts for the long winter they hide them either in one huge hole or, as the common gray squirrel does, in several hundred different places, exercising behavior known as "scatter hoarding" (what investment advisors would call portfolio diversification).  The purpose of the hoards is to allow the squirrels to rest quietly in their nests during the winter, leisurely cracking nuts while watching reruns of American Idol, without ever having to shovel the walk or put up with unpleasant commuting conditions. Snuggled together, they leave their nests only as necessary to "carry out" from their various food caches (presumably the ones that don't deliver).
 
I started wondering how squirrels  calculate their "Number." In other words, how does a particular squirrel figure out how many acorns and nuts he needs to maintain his standard of living during his season of "retirement"-- and can we borrow this instinct to help us calculate when we can stop hoarding and head home to our own comfortable nests.
 
I proceeded to research the subject in the way all of the finest academicians do; I Googled  "squirrels gathering nuts." The result was disappointing.  Rather than relying on some extraordinary scientific phenomenon, it appears, (according to Almanac.com), that squirrels simply "...gather food until there's no more to gather.  They are rather greedy." (Yet another parallel to humankind, but not what I was hoping to find.)  Okay, so the squirrel doesn't know any more than we do when it's time to get out of the rat race, even though he is, more-or-less, a rat.
 
It's amusing to try to imagine how the squirrel might handle the unanticipated loss of a significant portion of his portfolio of savings as a result of a forest recession or other Act of God.  Would he immediately cut back on berries and nuts and switch to fungi, twigs and bark?  Put the second nest up for sale? And is there such a thing as a bailout for squirrels and, if so, what would that look like? Would "They" somehow replenish the caches of squirrels who had imprudently loaned their hoards to other, unreliable squirrels? And if so, exactly who would "They" be? (Those are trick questions. The truth is there is no "They" since squirrels have no federal government to fall back on, which is bad news for them but then again, they presumably keep 100% of their income.)
 
The most impressive information I unearthed about the squirrel is that, though his brain is roughly the size of a walnut, when spring arrives he is generally able to locate approximately 50% of the hundreds of places where he hid his hoard of nuts the previous fall! I'm sure you can guess where I'm heading with this.  How can this rodent, with his teeny hippocampus, remember where he hid all those nuts six months earlier when you and I can't remember half the time which section in the mall parking lot we left our giant SUV an hour ago (even though we didn’t hide it under several layers of dirt). Come to think of it, perhaps the average squirrel is slightly more intelligent than mankind.  After all, his investment loss ratio is roughly equivalent to what mine has been over the last year, and his fees are definitely a lot lower.
 
At the end of the day, sadly, it does not appear there is much we can learn from the ubiquitous squirrels that share our backyards, parks and the occasional attic.  But there is one pretty important lesson we humans could certainly teach those squirrels, and they would do well to listen up.  It goes like this: when you're standing on your hind legs in the middle of a road and you see four large round black rubbery things rolling towards you at an alarming speed, don't just stand there staring - drop the nuts and run!
 
Alisa Singer's humorous essays have been published in magazines and newspapers across the country and in Canada. She is also an author, painter, practicing corporate lawyer, wife and mother. She can be
contacted at
ASingerauthor@gmail.com
photo portrait Alisa.jpg

 

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Don't Delay Planning


By Catherine Green

In case of an illness that leaves you incapacitated, only you should decide what you want done, or not done. This is where an advance directive, sometimes called a living will, comes in.  At what stage of life should you start thinking about these matters?
 
“Certainly, in your 40s by all means,” said attorney Risé Newman, whose practice in Center City Philadelphia includes estate and property law. “If you’re in your 20s or 30s and unmarried, you should make your healthcare wishes known.”
 
A financial power of attorney becomes increasingly important as people age, she said. With a financial power of attorney, the appointed agent has the power to step in, when needed, to handle financial affairs. No matter what your situation, having such an arrangement prevents the need to have a guardian appointed.
 
Under Pennsylvania law, financial powers of attorney and living wills are “very thorough,” Newman said. They indicate whether your wishes must be followed, or the designated person has discretion to respond to changing circumstances.

A Pennsylvania law, Act 169, establishes criteria for advance healthcare directives and provisions for carrying them out if you become incapacitated.You may designate an agent, someone to have a healthcare power of attorney,who will see your wishes are carried out if you are unable to express them. A living will becomes effective in the event you become incapable of communicating medical treatment instructions,and you are in an end-stage condition or are permanently unconscious. Health care power of attorney gives your agent the power to speak for you only when you are unable to speak for yourself; you need not be in an end-stage condition or permanently unconscious.
 
This agent should know just what you want done. Should your doctor try every procedure possible to preserve life, just enough care to keep you comfortable,or anything in between? Be sure your doctor has a copy of the document, and knows the person you designated.  

Inform everyone
It’s also a good idea to let all interested persons — especially relatives — know whom you’ve designated to have your healthcare power of attorney, and what your desires are. The person you name should be someone who lives in your area, who can be available in an emergency.

Should your doctor disagree with some provision, he/she must help you find another provider who will accommodate you.
 
Pennsylvania does not require that the healthcare directive be notarized. Some states do, however, and elder-care lawyers suggest having it done in case you are in one of those states when an emergency arises. 
  
Personal finances
Handling personal finances is another major concern. Here’s where a financial power of attorney comes in. The person you designate has only the powers outlined in the document. An AARP report on the subject notes it can be as simple as giving permission to sell your car, or as extensive as allowing the person to handle all your banking and other financial transactions. In this case, the bank must be informed and may require you to execute one of its forms, so your agent can be authorized to write checks, withdraw or transfer funds and otherwise manage your accounts.
 
This doesn’t mean those rights are taken away from you. Generally, the financial power of attorney goes into effect when an individual is declared incompetent. This determination is most often made by a physician.
The AARP advises making both types of power of attorney as detailed as possible, allowing for unforeseen events.
 
As long as you can express your wishes, you’re in charge of your own life.
 
If you haven’t established power of attorney, says Philadelphia estate lawyer Keelin S. Barry, a costly and demeaning guardianship process can occur. Such documents, she notes, are “really for the benefit of the people you love. You can make things easier for them if they know what you want.
 
“For people fortunate enough to have people they can trust — usually a family member, but it can be another person — to handle their affairs, it certainly makes sense to go ahead and have a durable power of attorney.”
 
If no such power is given, the law provides for appointment of a healthcare advocate decision maker to make decisions. In order of priority, this would be a spouse, adult child, parent, adult sibling and adult grandchild.

The Pennsylvania Department of Aging has published a brochure, “Understanding Advance Directives for Health Care,” available on its website, www.aging.state.pa.us. Choose brochures from the list on the left. Free printed copies may also be available. 
 
Catherine Green is a former reporter and copy editor for the Philadelphia Bulletin, and is now a part-time copy editor for the Philadelphia Tribune.
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