Archive for the ‘Healthcare’ Category

Supreme Court: Part of lost wages award is taxable under Railroad Retirement Act

A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court found that the portion of a damages award attributable to lost wages for a workplace injury is considered to be taxable compensation under the Railroad Retirement Tax Act (RRTA). The decision in BNSF Railway Co. v. Loos (No. 17-1042) was released March 4.

Michael Loos pursued a claim against his then-employer, BNSF, for a workplace injury under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), a law allowing railroad workers to file suit against their employers for on-the-job injuries. Loos was awarded damages of $126,212, of which $30,000 was attributable to lost wages from BNSF. BNSF indicated that it would withhold railroad retirement taxes from the lost wages portion of the award. Loos disagreed with this theory of withholding, arguing that, consistent with the RRTA’s definition of compensation, the payment must be “for services rendered” in order to be taxable and instead of compensation for services rendered the payment at issue compensated for an injury.

The issue worked its way from the lower courts to the Supreme Court. Oral arguments took place on November 6, 2018, and the court reached its decision on a 7-2 vote. In reversing the decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the Supreme Court held that the RRTA’s definition of compensation includes not simply pay for active service, but also “pay for periods of absence from active service provided there is an employer-employee relationship.” Whether the employer chooses to make the payment through a voluntary settlement or is involuntarily made to do so through an award of damages is immaterial so long as the payment for lost wages is provided based on the recipient’s status as a service-rendering employee.

The Internal Revenue Service administers the RRTA and, therefore, is the official source for Railroad Retirement tax information.

However, for purposes only of illustrating the court’s decision, the following example is provided.

In 2019, railroad employers and employees are subject to a Railroad Retirement tier I payroll tax of 7.65 percent (6.20 percent on earnings up to $132,900 for retirement, and 1.45 percent on all earnings for Medicare hospital insurance) and a tier II tax of 13.1 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively, on earnings up to $98,700. (An additional 0.9 percent in hospital insurance taxes, 2.35 percent in total, applies to an individual’s income exceeding $200,000, or $250,000 for a married couple filing a joint tax return).

If a railroad employee with no other earnings in 2019 is awarded $550,000 due to an on-the-job injury, of which $200,000 is attributable to lost wages (both past and future), the employer and employee would be required to pay $11,139.80 in tier I taxes ($8,239.80 retirement and $2,900 Medicare) and $12,929.70 and $4,836.30, respectively, in tier II taxes. (The additional Medicare tax would not apply as the award for lost wages did not exceed $200,000).

News from Amplifon: Study shows link between chronic noise exposure, heart conditions

Amplifon’s latest news release discusses a recent study conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital that indicates that chronic noise exposure may increase the risks for cardiovascular conditions.

The preliminary findings reveal that people with the highest levels of chronic noise exposure – such as highway and airport noise – had a three-fold increased risk of suffering cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and strokes, regardless of other factors known to increase cardiovascular risk.

Read the full article from Amplifon, a partner in SMART Transportation Division’s H&W program, at the Amplifon website.

OSHA’s guide to working in cold weather

Winter weather presents hazards including slippery roads/surfaces, strong winds and environmental cold. Employers must prevent illnesses, injuries, or fatalities, by controlling these hazards in workplaces impacted by winter weather.

OSHA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are working together on a public education effort aimed at improving the way people prepare for and respond to severe weather.

Cold stress

It is important for employers to know the wind chill temperature so that they can gauge workers’ exposure risk better and plan how to safely do the work. It is also important to monitor workers’ physical condition during tasks, especially new workers who may not be used to working in the cold, or workers returning after spending some time away from work.

The NOAA Weather Radio is a nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information from the nearest NWS office. It will give information when wind chill conditions reach critical thresholds. A Wind Chill Warning is issued when wind chill temperatures are life-threatening. A Wind Chill Advisory is issued when wind chill temperatures are potentially hazardous.

Who is affected by environmental cold?

Environmental cold can affect any worker exposed to cold air temperatures and puts workers at risk of cold stress. As wind speed increases, it causes the air temperature to feel even colder, increasing the risk of cold stress to exposed workers, especially those working outdoors, such as recreational workers, snow cleanup crews, construction workers, police officers and firefighters. Other workers who may be affected by exposure to environmental cold conditions include those in transit, baggage handlers, water transportation, landscaping services, and support activities for oil and gas operations.

Risk factors for cold stress include:

  • Wetness/dampness, dressing improperly and exhaustion
  • Predisposing health conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism and diabetes
  • Poor physical conditioning

What is cold stress?

What constitutes cold stress and its effects can vary across different areas of the country. In regions that are not used to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered factors for “cold stress.” Increased wind speed also causes heat to leave the body more rapidly (wind chill effect). Wetness or dampness, even from body sweat, also facilitates heat loss from the body. Cold stress occurs by driving down the skin temperature, and eventually the internal body temperature. When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur, and permanent tissue damage and death may result. Types of cold stress include: trench foot, frostbite and hypothermia.

For more information, see OSHA’s Cold Stress Safety and Health Guide.

Types of Cold Stress

Immersion/Trench Foot

Trench foot is a non-freezing injury of the feet caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. It can occur in temperatures as high as 60°F if feet are constantly wet. Injury occurs because wet feet lose heat 25-times faster than dry feet.

What are they symptoms of trench foot?

Reddening skin, tingling, pain, swelling, leg cramps, numbness and blisters.

First Aid

  • Call 911 immediately in an emergency; otherwise seek medical assistance as soon as possible.
  • Remove wet shoes/boots and wet socks.
  • Dry the feet and avoid working on them.
  • Keep affected feet elevated and avoid walking. Get medical attention.

Frostbite

Frostbite is caused by the freezing of the skin and tissues. Frostbite can cause permanent damage to the body, and in severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.

What are the symptoms of frostbite?

Reddened skin develops gray/white patches in the fingers, toes, nose, or ear lobes; tingling, aching, a loss of feeling, firm/hard, and blisters may occur in the affected areas.

First Aid

  • Follow the recommendations described below for hypothermia.
  • Protect the frostbitten area, e.g., by wrapping loosely in a dry cloth and protect the area from contact until medical help arrives.
  • DO NOT rub the affected area, because rubbing causes damage to the skin and tissue.
  • Do not apply snow or water. Do not break blisters.
  • DO NOT try to re-warm the frostbitten area before getting medical help, for example, do not use heating pads or place in warm water. If a frostbitten area is rewarmed and gets frozen again, more tissue damage will occur. It is safer for the frostbitten area to be rewarmed by medical professionals.
  • Give warm sweetened drinks if alert (no alcohol).

Hypothermia

Hypothermia occurs when the normal body temperature (98.6°F) drops to less than 95°F. Exposure to cold temperatures causes the body to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up the body’s stored energy. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, but it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or immersion in cold water.

What are the symptoms of hypothermia?

An important mild symptom of hypothermia is uncontrollable shivering, which should not be ignored. Although shivering indicates that the body is losing heat, it also helps the body to rewarm itself. Moderate to severe symptoms of hypothermia are loss of coordination, confusion, slurred speech, heart rate/breathing slow, unconsciousness and possibly death. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know what is happening and won’t be able to do anything about it.

First Aid

  • Call 911 immediately in an emergency.
  • Move the worker to a warm, dry area.
  • Remove any wet clothing and replace with dry clothing. Wrap the entire body (including the head and neck) in layers of blankets; and with a vapor barrier (e.g. tarp, garbage bag) Do not cover the face.

If medical help is more than 30 minutes away:

  • Give warm sweetened drinks if alert (no alcohol), to help increase the body temperature. Never try to give a drink to an unconscious person.
  • Place warm bottles or hot packs in armpits, sides of chest, and groin. Call 911 for additional rewarming instructions.

Basic Life Support (when necessary)

Co-workers trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) may help a person suffering from hypothermia who has no pulse or is not breathing:

  • Call 911 for emergency medical assistance immediately.
  • Treat the worker as per instructions for hypothermia, but be very careful and do not try to give an unconscious person fluids.
  • Check him/her for signs of breathing and for a pulse. Check for 60 seconds.
  • If after 60 seconds the affected worker is not breathing and does not have a pulse, trained workers may start rescue breaths for 3 minutes.
  • Recheck for breathing and pulse, check for 60 seconds.
  • If the worker is still not breathing and has no pulse, continue rescue breathing.
  • Only start chest compressions per the direction of the 911 operator or emergency medical services*
  • Reassess patient’s physical status periodically.

*Chest compressions are recommended only if the patient will not receive medical care within 3 hours.

Wind Chill Temperature

Outdoor workers exposed to cold and windy conditions are at risk of cold stress, both air temperature and wind speed affect how cold they feel. “Wind chill” is the term used to describe the rate of heat loss from the human body, resulting from the combined effect of low air temperature, and wind speed. The wind chill temperature is a single value that takes both air temperature and wind speed into account. For example, when the air temperature is 40°F, and the wind speed is 35mph, the wind chill temperature is 28°F; this measurement is the actual effect of the environmental cold on the exposed skin.

National Weather Service (NWS) Wind Chill Calculator: With this tool, one may input the air temperature and wind speed, and it will calculate the wind chill temperature.

The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) developed the following Work/Warm-up Schedule for a 4-hour shift that takes both air temperature and wind speed into account to provide recommendations on scheduling work breaks and ceasing non-emergency work.

Dressing Properly for the Cold

Dressing properly is extremely important to preventing cold stress. When cold environments or temperatures cannot be avoided, the following would help protect workers from cold stress:

  • Wear at least three layers of loose-fitting clothing. Layering provides better insulation.
    • An inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic (polypropylene) to keep moisture away from the body. Thermal wear, wool, silk or polypropylene, inner layers of clothing that will hold more body heat than cotton.
    • A middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation even when wet.
    • An outer wind and rain protection layer that allows some ventilation to prevent overheating.
  • Tight clothing reduces blood circulation. Warm blood needs to be circulated to the extremities. Insulated coat/jacket (water resistant if necessary)
  • Knit mask to cover face and mouth (if needed)
  • Hat that will cover your ears as well. A hat will help keep your whole body warmer. Hats reduce the amount of body heat that escapes from your head.
  • Insulated gloves (water resistant if necessary), to protect the hands
  • Insulated and waterproof boots to protect the feet

Safety tips for workers

  • Your employer should ensure that you know the symptoms of cold stress
  • Monitor your physical condition and that of your coworkers
  • Dress appropriately for the cold
  • Stay dry in the cold because moisture or dampness, e.g. from sweating, can increase the rate of heat loss from the body
  • Keep extra clothing (including underwear) handy in case you get wet and need to change
  • Drink warm sweetened fluids (no alcohol)
  • Use proper engineering controls, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment (PPE) provided by your employer

Winter driving

Although employers cannot control roadway conditions, they can promote safe driving behavior by ensuring workers recognize the hazards of winter weather driving, for example, driving on snow/ice covered roads; are properly trained for driving in winter weather conditions; and are licensed (as applicable) for the vehicles they operate. For information about driving safely during the winter, visit OSHA’s Safe Winter Driving page.

Employers should set and enforce driver safety policies. Employers should also implement an effective maintenance program for all vehicles and mechanized equipment that workers are required to operate. Crashes can be avoided. Learn more at the Motor Vehicle Safety (OSHA Safety and Health Topics Page) .

Employers should ensure properly trained workers inspect the following vehicle systems to determine if they are working properly:

  • Brakes: Brakes should provide even and balanced braking. Also check that brake fluid is at the proper level.
  • Cooling system: Ensure a proper mixture of 50/50 antifreeze and water in the cooling system at the proper level.
  • Electrical system: Check the ignition system and make sure that the battery is fully charged and that the connections are clean. Check that the alternator belt is in good condition with proper tension.
  • Engine: Inspect all engine systems.
  • Exhaust system: Check exhaust for leaks and that all clamps and hangers are snug.
  • Tires: Check for proper tread depth and no signs of damage or uneven wear. Check for proper tire inflation.
  • Oil: Check that oil is at proper level.
  • Visibility systems: Inspect all exterior lights, defrosters (windshield and rear window), and wipers. Install winter windshield wipers.

An emergency kit with the following items is recommended in vehicles:

  • Cell phone or two-way radio
  • Windshield ice scraper
  • Snow brush
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • Shovel
  • Tow chain
  • Traction aids (bag of sand or cat litter)
  • Emergency flares
  • Jumper cables
  • Snacks
  • Water
  • Road maps
  • Blankets, change of clothes

Preventing slips on snow and ice

To prevent slips, trips, and falls, employers should clear snow and ice from walking surfaces, and spread deicer as quickly as possible after a winter storm. When walking on snow or ice is unavoidable workers should be trained to:

  • Wear footwear that has good traction and insulation (e.g. insulated and water-resistant boots or rubber over-shoes with good rubber treads)
  • Take short steps and walk at a slower pace to react quickly to changes in traction

Final FMCSA rule regarding operators with diabetes takes effect

A final rule published from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) permits medical examiners to allow commercial operators with insulated-treated diabetes to get behind the wheel without a months-long waiting period, Transport Topics reports.

The permission given by the rule, which went into effect in November, is contingent on a medical assessment and consultation between the operator’s physician and the carrier’s medical examiner.

“The rule eliminates a typical two- or three-month delay for diabetic drivers to navigate a bureaucratic process requesting an exemption from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration after being automatically disqualified for having the condition,” Transport Topics’ Eric Miller wrote.

The rule was initially published in the Federal Register in September.

“This final action delivers economic savings to affected drivers and our agency, and streamlines processes by eliminating unnecessary regulatory burdens and redundancy,” FMCSA Administrator Raymond P. Martinez said in September when the final rule was initially announced. “It’s a win-win for all parties involved.”

Miller’s article about the rule is available on the Transport Topics website.

Open enrollment underway for UnitedHealthcare GA-23111

UnitedHealthcare has announced that enrollment is open under Group Policy GA-23111.

From November through December 2018, any individual who is eligible for coverage under one of the GA-23111 plans can enroll and will be accepted for coverage without any medical underwriting or requirement of good health. This includes family members who may not already be covered by the policy.

There are no limitations for pre-existing conditions, and coverage will be effective Jan. 1, 2019.

Only applicants whose completed enrollment forms are postmarked in November or December 2018 will be considered for enrollment.

This enrollment is for former railroad employees (and their dependents) who:

  • Were previously covered under any railroad health plan and were represented by a railway labor organization, or
  • Were members in accordance with the constitution or bylaws of one of the participating railway labor organizations when coverage under their applicable group health plan ended.

Open enrollment under Plan F is available for railroad employees’ parents or parents-in-law who are eligible under Medicare.

For persons eligible for Medicare, call 800-809-0453 for more information.

For persons not eligible for Medicare, call 800-842-5252 for more information.

To get an enrollment form, visit www.yourtracktohealth.com and follow the “Plan Your Retirement” link at the top of the home page, then visit “Essential Forms” and then “Group Policy GA-23111 Enrollment Form.”

A PDF with more information about GA-23111 is available for download.

An open enrollment period for GA-23111 Plan E also is underway in November and Decemeber.

GA-23111 Plan E is made available by rail labor organizations and pays 70 percent on eligible expenses of the 20 percent not covered under GA-46000, which is the Railroad Employees National Early Retirement Major Medical Benefit plan (ERMA). Combined, GA-46000 and Plan E cover 94 percent of your eligible expenses.

  • Plan E has a $100 calendar year deductible per individual.
  • Plan E adds an additional lifetime maximum amount of $500,000 for you and each enrolled dependent, which is much higher than for GA-46000 alone
  • Plan E has some benefits for routine and/or preventive benefits. For example, covered expenses for pap smears and mammograms are payable in full at 100 percent and not subject to the calendar year deductible. However, the charge for the office visit in connection with the preventive service is not payable under Plan E.

A PDF with more information about Plan E also is available.

ERMA lifetime maximum benefit to increase in 2019

caduceusThe lifetime maximum benefit for the Railroad Employees National Early Retirement Major Medical Benefit (ERMA or GA-46000) Plan will increase from $162,500 to $166,400 beginning Jan. 1, 2019.

At the end of 2001, labor and management had agreed on various procedures to administer the annual changes in the amount of the lifetime maximum benefit under the ERMA Plan.

In conjunction with the formula established in 2001, a new lifetime maximum was calculated by utilizing the October 2018 consumer price index (CPI) data for Hospital and Related Services and Physician Services. The result is a lifetime maximum for 2019 of $166,400.

For individuals who have reached the lifetime maximum, the incremental maximum available is applied to eligible expenses submitted for dates of service on or after the effective date of the new maximum. For 2019, this amount will be $3,900.

This change will apply to all railroads and crafts participating in ERMA.

Resources for those impacted by Hurricane Michael

The following health and wellness resources are available to those impacted by Hurricane Michael.

Behavioral Health:

United Behavioral Health/Optum: 1-866-342-6892 (toll-free) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 
An emotional support hotline is available, free of charge, regardless of behavioral health plan membership. It provides access to specially-trained mental health specialists.

Prescription Drugs:

Accredo and Express Scripts: 1-800-842-0070 (toll-free) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, express-scripts.com
If you are affected by the hurricane and need your medicine, we can help. If you need an emergency fill, login to express-scripts.com and go to Find a Pharmacy to locate a nearby network pharmacy. Then, call the pharmacy to check if it is open. If your ID card is unavailable, call the number above for assistance, and to locate a nearby network pharmacy. Deliveries might be delayed into affected areas.

Vision:

EyeMed: 1-866-652-0018 (toll-free) Mon-Sat 7:30 a.m.-11 p.m. ET; Sun 8 a.m.-8 p.m. ET 
If you’ve lost, broken or damaged your eyewear, emergency (temporary) replacement glasses can be sent to you, at no cost, with overnight shipping (must call by 2:30 p.m. ET for same-day processing). Or, if you prefer to order permanent replacement glasses or contacts, expedited shipping is available.

Medical care and more:

Teladoc: 1-855-764-1727 (toll-free) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or for more information visit teladoc.com/michael/
Telemedicine services are available to any resident of an evacuation zone, regardless of health plan membership. Individuals can request a call from a doctor, free of charge, to handle non-emergency medical problems via specific contact information above.

Railroad HEALTHLINK: 1-866-735-5685 (toll-free) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 
Free telephone access to registered nurses is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week regardless of health plan membership.

Aetna: 1-833-327-2386 (toll-free) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 
Help finding care, behavioral health support, and assistance with finding available shelters and government resources, and other services are available through Aetna’s Resources for Living, regardless of health plan membership to people in affected areas.

Highmark/Blue Cross Blue Shield: 1-866-267-3320 (toll free) Mon-Fri 8 a.m.-8 p.m. ET 
For those who reside in areas where States of Emergency have been declared, waivers have been put in place for Medical Authorization Requirements, Claims Timely Filing, and Paying Out-of-Network Claims as In-Network.

UnitedHealthcare: 1-866-735-5685 (toll-free) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 
Free telephone access to registered nurses is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week regardless of health plan membership. Help finding health care services is available through the toll-free phone number, and in-network rates will be available even if members are not able to see an in-network provider.

HealthAdvocate: 1-866-799-2690 (toll-free) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 
Experts are available to help: locate in-network providers in a new area, find facilities that will be able to provide temporary assistance, transfer medical records and prescriptions, get a short supply of medications if prescriptions have been lost, coordinate care between insurance company and medical providers, answer benefit and treatment questions and help with elderly parents.

Dental:

Aetna Dental: 1-877-238-6200 (toll-free) Mon-Fri 8 a.m.-6 p.m. ET 
Members affected by the hurricane who need care or other assistance can access Aetna.

RRB releases Medicare Part B premiums for 2019

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has announced that the standard monthly Part B premium will be $135.50 in 2019, a slight increase from $134.00 in 2018. However, some Medicare beneficiaries will pay slightly less than this amount. By law, Part B premiums for current enrollees cannot increase by more than the amount of the cost-of-living adjustment for social security (railroad retirement tier I) benefits.

Since that adjustment is 2.8 percent in 2019, about 2 million Medicare beneficiaries will see an increase in their Part B premiums but still pay less than $135.50. The standard premium amount will also apply to new enrollees in the program, and certain beneficiaries will continue to pay higher premiums based on their modified adjusted gross income.

The monthly premiums that include income-related adjustments for 2019 will range from $189.60 up to $460.50, depending on the extent to which an individual beneficiary’s modified adjusted gross income exceeds $85,000 (or $170,000 for a married couple). The highest rate applies to beneficiaries whose incomes exceed $500,000 (or $750,000 for a married couple). The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services estimates that about 5 percent of Medicare beneficiaries pay the larger income-adjusted premiums.

Beneficiaries in Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage plans pay premiums that vary from plan to plan. Part D beneficiaries whose modified adjusted gross income exceeds the same income thresholds that apply to Part B premiums also pay a monthly adjustment amount. In 2019, the adjustment amount ranges from $12.40 to $77.40.

The Railroad Retirement Board withholds Part B premiums from benefit payments it processes. The agency can also withhold Part C and D premiums from benefit payments if an individual submits a request to his or her Part C or D insurance plan.

The following tables show the income-related Part B premium adjustments for 2019. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is responsible for all income-related monthly adjustment amount determinations. To make the determinations, SSA uses the most recent tax return information available from the Internal Revenue Service. For 2019, that will usually be the beneficiary’s 2017 tax return information. If that information is not available, SSA will use information from the 2016 tax return.

Those railroad retirement and social security Medicare beneficiaries affected by the 2019 Part B and D income-related premiums will receive a notice from SSA by the end of the year. The notice will include an explanation of the circumstances where a beneficiary may request a new determination. Persons who have questions or would like to request a new determination should contact SSA after receiving their notice.

Additional information about Medicare coverage, including specific benefits and deductibles, can be found at www.medicare.gov.

2019 PART B PREMIUMS 

Beneficiaries who file an individual tax return with income:

Beneficiaries who file a joint tax return with income:

Income-related monthly adjustment amount

Total monthly Part B premium amount

 

Less than or equal to $85,000 

Less than or equal to $170,000

$0.00

$135.50

Greater than $85,000 and less than or equal to $107,000 

Greater than $170,000 and less than or equal to $214,000

$54.10

$189.60

Greater than $107,000 and less than or equal to $133,500 

Greater than $214,000 and less than or equal to $267,000

$135.40

$270.90

Greater than $133,500 and less than or equal to $160,000

Greater than $267,000 and less than or equal to $320,000

$216.70

$352.20

Greater than $160,000 and less than $500,000

Greater than $320,000 and less than $750,000

$297.90

$433.40

$500,000 and above

$750,000 and above

$325.00

$460.50

 

The monthly premium rates paid by beneficiaries who are married, but file a separate return from their spouses and who lived with their spouses at some time during the taxable year, are different.  Those rates are as follows:

 

Beneficiaries who are married, but file a separate tax return, with income:

Income-related monthly adjustment amount

Total monthly Part B premium amount

Less than or equal to $85,000

$0.00

$135.50

Greater than $85,000 and less than $415,000

$297.90

$433.40

$415,000 and above

$325.00

$460.50

 

Railroad Retirement benefits get COLA increase for 2019

Most railroad retirement annuities, like social security benefits, will increase in January 2019 due to a rise in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) from the third quarter of 2017 to the corresponding period of the current year.

Cost-of-living increases are calculated in both the tier I and tier II benefits included in a railroad retirement annuity. Tier I benefits, like social security benefits, will increase by 2.8 percent, which is the percentage of the CPI rise. Tier II benefits will go up by 0.9 percent, which is 32.5 percent of the CPI increase. Vested dual benefit payments and supplemental annuities also paid by the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) are not adjusted for the CPI change.

In January 2019, the average regular railroad retirement employee annuity will increase $60 a month to $2,808 and the average of combined benefits for an employee and spouse will increase $86 a month to $4,078. For those aged widow(er)s eligible for an increase, the average annuity will increase $34 a month to $1,398. However, widow(er)s whose annuities are being paid under the Railroad Retirement and Survivors’ Improvement Act of 2001 will not receive annual cost-of-living adjustments until their annuity amount is exceeded by the amount that would have been paid under prior law, counting all interim cost-of-living increases otherwise payable. Some 52 percent of the widow(er)s on the RRB’s rolls are being paid under the 2001 law.

If a railroad retirement or survivor annuitant also receives a social security or other government benefit, such as a public service pension, the increased tier I benefit is reduced by the increased government benefit. Tier II cost-of-living increases are not reduced by increases in other government benefits. If a widow(er) whose annuity is being paid under the 2001 law is also entitled to an increased government benefit, her or his railroad retirement survivor annuity may decrease.

However, the total amount of the combined railroad retirement widow(er)’s annuity and other government benefits will not be less than the total payable before the cost-of-living increase and any increase in Medicare premium deductions.

The cost-of-living increase follows a tier 1 increase of 2.0 percent in January 2018, which had been the largest in 6 years. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently announced the Medicare Part B premiums for 2019, and this information is available at www.medicare.gov.

In late December the RRB will mail notices to all annuitants providing a breakdown of the annuity rates payable to them in January 2019.

Social Security benefits to get 2.8 percent COLA increase for 2019

Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for more than 67 million Americans will increase 2.8 percent in 2019, announced the Social Security Administration (SSA).

The 2.8 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will begin with benefits payable to more than 62 million Social Security beneficiaries in January 2019. Increased payments to more than 8 million SSI beneficiaries will begin on December 31, 2018. (Note: some people receive both Social Security and SSI benefits). The Social Security Act ties the annual COLA to the increase in the Consumer Price Index as determined by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some other adjustments that take effect in January of each year are based on the increase in average wages. Based on that increase, the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase to $132,900 from $128,400.

Social Security and SSI beneficiaries are normally notified by mail in early December about their new benefit amount. This year, for the first time, most people who receive Social Security payments will be able to view their COLA notice online through their mySocial Security account. People may create or access their my Social Security account online at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.

Information about Medicare changes for 2019, when announced, will be available at www.medicare.gov. For Social Security beneficiaries receiving Medicare, Social Security will not be able to compute their new benefit amount until after the Medicare premium amounts for 2019 are announced. Final 2019 benefit amounts will be communicated to beneficiaries in December through the mailed COLA notice and my Social SecurityMessage Center.

The Social Security Act provides for how the COLA is calculated. To read more, please visit www.socialsecurity.gov/cola.

Click here for a fact sheet showing the effect of the various automatic adjustments.

How Medicare responds to hurricane-related disasters

When a natural disaster, extreme weather or other emergency occurs that affects providers and the Medicare beneficiaries that they serve, special emergency-related policies and procedures may be implemented.

The process begins when a governor of an affected state requests assistance. This is done if the event is beyond the combined response abilities of the state and local governments. From this request, the President of the United States can declare a Public Health Emergency (PHE), using the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

Under Section 1135 or 1812(f) of the Social Security Act, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) can issue ‘blanket waivers’ for providers and suppliers when it comes to services that are provided by skilled nursing facilities, home health agencies and critical access hospitals. Measures are in place to assist with durable medical equipment and supplies, as well as quality reporting, extending the appeals time limit, and getting replacement prescription refills.

As an example in an impacted area, when a waiver is granted for submitting appeal requests (which normally would need to be filed 120 days from the date of the claim denial notification), an appeal may be filed after the 120 days based on CMS guidance.

The following are the most recent hurricane-related PHE’s for which HHS has authorized waivers:

2018 Waivers

  • Hurricane Michael – Florida (at the time of writing this article)
  • Hurricane Florence – North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia

2017 Waivers

  • Hurricane Maria – Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Hurricane Nate – Louisiana and Mississippi
  • Hurricane Irma – Florida, Georgia and South Carolina
  • Hurricane Harvey – Texas and Louisiana

Medicare has a toll-free helpline you can use if you are in an impacted area. This Disaster Distress Helpline is available 24/7. The toll-free, multilingual and confidential crisis support service can be reached by calling 1-800-985-5990. You can also text TalkWithUs to 66746 (for Spanish, press 2 or text Hablanos to 66746) to connect with a trained crisis counselor.

More information is available to you at the following address: https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2018/10/09/hhs-secretary-azar-declares-public-health-emergency-florida-due-hurricane-michael.html

Hurricanes don’t discriminate in terms of destruction, and there are times when a person only has the clothes on their back – but no wallet or Medicare card to get assistance. If you lose your Medicare card, you can call our Beneficiary Customer Service Center at 800-833-4455, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. ET to order a new one. For the hearing impaired, call TTY/TDD at 877-566-3572. You may also call the Railroad Retirement Board at 877-772-5772.

You are encouraged you to visit Palmetto GBA’s Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/MyRRMedicare, as well as their website at www.PalmettoGBA.com/RR/Me for more information.