TAKING STOCK: Straight talk on Social Security

Dear Mr. Berko: Here's an advertisement by Freedom Health that promises to give me and my wife $96.40 back every month from Social Security if we sign up with them to take our Medicare. That's a $193 savings each month, which we can certainly use in this sick economy. What can you tell us about Freedom? Is it a good company? Do they have any customer complaints? Are they solvent? Do they pay their claims? But most of all, how can they give us more coverage than Medicare and give us back $193 every month? Is this one of those ''if it sounds too good to be true'' things? Please give us your guidance on this. We're both 67 and I still work.

P.S., North Port, Fla.

Dear P.S.: Freedom Health is a Medicare Advantage plan, and like numerous other MA plans, this insurer has a contract with Medicare to provide you with Part A and Part B coverage and covers ''medically necessary'' (they define medically necessary) benefits often including Part D (drug coverage). And like most MA plans, when you sign with Freedom Health, the government pays Freedom a monthly fee to manage your health care costs.

I don't know enough about Freedom Health to recommend or criticize their product. I know nothing about the company's solvency, the quality of its service or its customer satisfaction. You might be able to research all that stuff on the Internet.

However, I can tell you that the advertisement you enclosed is, like most health insurance advertising, disingenuous. Yes, they pay for certain health club memberships, certain personal OTC health care items, vision and some dental, and some hearing benefits that Medicare won't touch. And depending on which Freedom plan you select, they will personally pork back between $50 and $96 per month from Medicare in the form of a higher monthly Social Security check.

I'm not aware of any complaints about Freedom, nor am I aware of any ''attaboys,'' either. At best, I can tell you that Freedom makes a lot of money providing medical coverage and benefits for seniors.

So in order to provide you with more benefits than Medicare, in order to save you $96 per month and in order to make a profit doing all of this, Freedom's management must manage its assets more sparingly (sparingly is the operative word) than Medicare. And by golly, they do!

Now, to put that $96 per month or $1,152 a year into perspective, you should know that there are as many as 102 million people enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid. A savings of $1,152 per year suggest that the federal government could save over a trillion dollars in 10 years by privatizing Medicare. And this reinforces the old axiom that if Congress were to manage the Mohave Desert, the desert would run out of sand in three to four years.

If you and your wife are looking for a Medicare Advantage plan, I recommend that you visit several general insurance agencies rather than work with an agent who is employed by Freedom and is trained to sell only Freedom products. That's like asking an agent from MetLife if you should purchase a life insurance policy from Lumbermens Mutual. Both insure your life, but the different, teensy moving parts in each life policy can be important enough to give you the shivering fits.

Most MA plans offer similar benefits such as no monthly plan premium, no costs for primary care visits, zero co-pay for some brand drugs and zero co-pay for many generic, etc. But the devil is in the details, and those niggling details are what can drive you to tears. A good general agent, who represents various MA plans, can help you navigate the potholes, slippery slopes and soft shoulders in the policies that you need to avoid.

Please address your financial questions to Malcolm Berko, P.O. Box 1416, Boca Raton, FL 33429 or e-mail him at mjberko@yahoo.com. To find out more about Malcolm Berko and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

Published: Mon, Mar 7, 2011