Savvy Senior: Little known property-tax relief programs help seniors save
Dear Savvy Senior,
I recently learned about a property-tax relief program for seniors in the county where I live. Apparently, there are hundreds of these programs across the country that many retirees, like me, are eligible for but don’t know about. What can you tell me about this?
— Overtaxed Eddie
Great question! Residential property-tax refund and credit programs exist in nearly every state, but unfortunately few people know about them. These programs can help retirees and many other Americans by reducing their property taxes. Here’s what you should know.
Rising Property Taxes
Property taxes are a major source of income for local governments, but while they help fund key public services, they can be a financial drain for many homeowners, especially retirees, many of whom live on fixed incomes.
According to Attom Data Solutions, a property-data provider, the average American household payed $3,785 in property taxes in 2021, but this amount varies widely depending on your state’s tax rate and your home’s estimated value. For example, New Jersey residents paid $9,476 per year on average in 2021, while West Virginia residents paid $901.
To help ease this tax burden, most states offer a number of property-tax relief programs. But states aren’t always proactive in letting people know. It’s up to you, the homeowner, to find out what’s available in your county or city that you may be eligible for, and to apply.
Property tax relief programs, sometimes called exemptions, release eligible homeowners from paying some or all of their property tax obligation. How long the exemption lasts can vary depending on where you live, and the reason you’re applying for the exemption.
The tax-relief process varies by county, city or state. In general, you’ll have to meet certain eligibility requirements, submit an application and provide documents that support your request. Most programs will either reduce, waive or freeze property taxes for seniors, veterans, surviving spouses, disabled and low-income residents.
But there are some counties that also offer basic homestead exemptions to homeowners regardless of age or income, and others that may provide exemptions to homeowners that have recently made energy-efficient improvements to their home.
Where to Look
The best way to learn about local property-tax relief programs and their eligibility requirements is to visit your county, city or state website that collects your property tax. Most of these sites also provide applications and instructions, and will allow you to apply either online, by mail or at your local tax office.
Another good resource for locating programs in your area is the Lincoln Institute, which has a property-tax database that lets you to browse programs across the country. To access it go to ResidentialPropertyTaxReliefPrograms.org.
AARP may also be able to help through their Property Tax-Aide service – see PTAconsumers.aarpfoundation.org. This free program, which is available in 13 states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida–Miami Dade County, Illinois-Cook County, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York and North Carolina) and the District of Columbia helps eligible homeowners and renters apply for relief.
Tips for being a long-distance caregiver
Dear Savvy Senior,
What tips do you recommend for long-distance caregivers? I help take care of my stubborn 86-year-old mother who still lives at home about 150 miles from me.
— Need Advice
Providing care and support for an aging parent who lives far away can present a variety challenges that can make the job difficult and stressful. Here are some tips and resources that may help you.
When it comes to monitoring and caring for an aging parent from afar, you have a couple of options. You can hire a professional to oversee your mom’s needs, or you can manage things yourself by building a support system, tapping into available resources, and utilizing technology devices that can help you keep tabs on her.
If your mom needs a lot of help, you should consider hiring a geriatric care manager who will give her a thorough assessment to identify her needs and will set up and manage all aspects of her care. But geriatric care managers are expensive typically charging between $100 and $250 per hour after an initial assessment of $150 to $750 and are not covered by Medicare.
To find a geriatric care manager in your mom’s area, visit AgingLifeCare.org or contact the nearest Area Agency on Aging (call 800-677-1116) to see if they have a list of providers.
If, however, your mom only needs occasional help, or if you can’t afford to use a care manager, here are some things you can do yourself to help her.
Create a care team: Put together a network of people (nearby friends or family, neighbors, clergy, etc.) who can check on your mom regularly, and who you can call on from time to time for occasional help. Also put together a list of reliable services you can call for household needs like lawn care, handyman services, plumber, etc.
Tap local resources: Most communities offer a range of free or subsidized services that can help seniors with basic needs such as home delivered meals, transportation, senior companion services and more. Contact the nearby Area Aging Agency to find out what’s available.
Use financial tools: If your mom needs help with her financial chores, arrange for direct deposit for her income sources, and set up automatic payments for her utilities and other routine bills. You can also set up her online banking service, so you can pay bills and monitor her account anytime. Or, if you need help, hire a daily money manager (AADMM.com) to do it for you. They charge between $25 and $100 per hour.
Check essential documents: This is also a good time to make sure your mom has the following essential legal documents: a will; a living will and health-care proxy, which allows you to make medical decisions on her behalf if she became incapacitated; and a durable power of attorney, which gives you similar legal authority for financial decisions, if needed.
If she doesn’t have these documents prepared, now is the time to make them. And if they are prepared, make sure they’re updated and know where they are located.
Hire in-home help: Depending on your mom’s needs, you may need to hire a part-time home-care aide that can help with things like preparing meals, housekeeping or personal care. Costs can run anywhere from $12 up to $25 per hour. To find someone, try websites like Care.com or CareLinx.com.
Utilize technology: To help you keep tabs on your mom from afar, there are various technologies that can help. For example, there are medical alert systems, video camera monitors, wearable activity trackers, and electronic pill boxes that can notify you if she has taken her medications. And to help you coordinate her care with members of her care team there are websites like LotsAHelpingHands.com.
For more tips, call the National Institute on Aging at 800-222-2225 and order their free booklet “Long-Distance Caregiving: Twenty Questions and Answers.”
How to reduce your medical bills
Dear Savvy Senior,
What tips do you recommend to Medicare beneficiaries dealing with hefty medical bills? My husband recently had open heart surgery and is recovering slowly, but the medical bills are coming in fast and furious and they’re putting us in medical debt.
— Struggling in Springfield
I’m sorry to hear about your billing struggles, but medical debt has unfortunately become a chronic problem in this country. According to U.S. Census data 19 percent of Americans households carry medical debt, including 10 percent of households headed by someone 65 or older. Even seniors on Medicare can easily get snagged in a web of complicated billing and coverage problems.
To help you slash your medical bills, here are some tips recommended by health care experts that you should try.
Double check your bills: Almost half of all medical bills contain at least one error, including duplicate charges or charges for services you never received. If you’re facing a high bill and are on the hook for some portion of it, request itemized invoices from the hospital and other providers that detail everything you were charged for and go through them line by line. If you find something you don’t understand or find fishy contact the provider for an explanation or a correction.
Wait for your EOB: Doctors’ offices and hospitals may mail initial bills to you before they even submit them to your health insurer. So, hold off on any payment until you receive an explanation of benefits (EOB) from your provider – Medicare, supplemental Medicare, Medicare Advantage, or private insurer. This will show what you owe after your insurance has paid its portion.
If your EOB shows that your insurer is refusing to pay for services that you think should be covered, call them to see whether it’s a correctable mistake, such as a coding error for a certain test or treatment. If it’s truly a denial of coverage, you may need to file an appeal. For details on how to file a Medicare appeal, see Medicare.gov/claims-appeals/how-do-i-file-an-appeal.
Ask for a discount: Call the hospital’s accounting office or the billing staff at your doctor’s practice and ask if they can reduce your bill. You’d be surprised how often this works. Or if you have the funds to pay the entire bill, ask the hospital or provider for a “prompt pay” discount which may save you 15 percent or more.
If it’s best for you to pay your bills over time, ask the billing office to set up a no-interest payment plan for you. It’s in the provider’s interest to work with you to obtain payment.
You can also call the hospital where your husband had his surgery and ask a billing specialist if the facility offers financial assistance. According to the American Hospital Association, about half of U.S. hospitals are nonprofit. This means they are required to offer free or discounted services in some instances. This is usually reserved for low to moderate income patients who have limited or no health insurance, but requirements vary from hospital to hospital.
Get help: If you’ve gotten nowhere on your own, contact the Patient Advocate Foundation (patientadvocate.org, 800-532-5274) who can help you understand and negotiate your medical bills, free of charge. Or consider hiring a medical billing professional to negotiate for you but be aware that these services can cost upward of $100 an hour. You can find potential candidates through the Alliance of Professional Health Advocates (advoconnection.com). Be sure to choose someone who is credentialed by the Patient Advocate Certification Board.
How to buy over-the-counter hearing aids
Dear Savvy Senior,
I’m interested in getting some of the new over-the-counter hearing aids that just became available a few month ago. Can you offer any tips to help me with this?
— Straining to Hear
The new FDA approved over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids that started rolling out this fall are a real game changer for the roughly 48 million Americans with hearing loss. Adults with impaired hearing can now walk in and buy hearing aids at a pharmacy, big box chain, consumer electronics store or online, without a prescription and without consulting an audiologist.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved this new class of hearing aids to lower prices and improve their availability.
About a third of people ages 65 to 74 and half of those over age 75 have hearing loss severe enough to affect their daily life. Yet about 80 percent of people who would benefit from hearing aids don’t wear them, according to the National Institutes of Health, primarily because of the hefty price tag.
Traditional hearing aids ordered through an audiologist cost anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000 a pair and are not covered by most private insurers and traditional Medicare. The new OTC hearing aids range from $200 up to $3,000.
Who Should Get Them?
OTC hearing aids are specifically designed for adults (18 and older) who have mild to moderate hearing loss. You don’t need a hearing exam or prescription to buy them, and they are designed so you can fit and tune them yourself.
Do you have mild to moderate hearing loss? The specific signs are having trouble hearing or understanding conversations, especially in noisier environments, over the phone, or if you can’t see who’s talking. Or, if you need a higher volume of TV, radio or music than other people, or have to ask others to speak more slowly, louder or repeat what they said.
If, however, your hearing problem is more severe than that, for example, if you also have trouble hearing loud sounds such as power tools or motor vehicles, or if you struggle to hear conversations in quiet settings, then your hearing loss is considered more significant than over-the-counter aids are intended to address.
To help you get a basic sense of your hearing problem, you can take an app-based test like Mimi (mimi.health) or SonicCloud (soniccloud.com).
If you find that your hearing loss is significant, you’ll need to work with an audiologist or hearing instrument specialist to find a hearing aid that works for you.
What to Look For
To help you choose a good OTC hearing aid that meets your needs and preferences, here are some important points to keep in mind.
Return policy: It can take weeks for your brain to adjust to hearing louder sounds through a hearing aid, so be sure to choose a brand that offers at least a 30-day free trial period, or money back return policy. The FDA requires manufactures to print their return policy on the package.
Set up: Many OTC hearing aids require a smartphone or computer to adjust and operate the devices to your specific needs, while others have the controls on the device. This will also be labeled on the box. Choose one that fits your preference and comfort level.
Battery: The package also should tell you what kind of battery the device uses. Some of the older versions of hearing aids have replaceable batteries, but many of the newer ones have rechargeable batteries that come in a charging case, where you charge them up every night.
Customer support: Some companies offer unlimited customer support to help you adjust or fine-tune your hearing aids, while others might limit support or charge extra. Be sure you check.
For more information, including product reviews, see the National Council on Aging’s OTC hearing aids buyer’s guide at NCOA.org/adviser/hearing-aids/over-the-counter-hearing-aids.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.