Examining the 2018 Social Security COLA and Increased Medicare Premiums

Seniors in the Washington D.C. area and the rest of the country received good news this fall. Next year, monthly Social Security income payments to retirees will increase by 2.0%. That will mean an extra $326 – roughly $27.40 a month – for the average Social Security recipient in 2018.

This is the largest cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to Social Security benefits since 2012. In that year, retirees received 3.6% more in benefits than they had in 2011. Unfortunately, the 2.0% increase may not make much of a difference. After all, the COLA does not constitute a gain on inflation, but merely a response to it.

The Senior Citizens League, an advocacy group for retirees, thinks that rising Medicare premiums could absorb the 2.0% COLA for 70% of Social Security beneficiaries. Next year, you may pay considerably more for the same coverage. Whether that happens or not, some analysts think retirees deserve larger Social Security COLAs than the ones they receive.

For 2018, the standard monthly Part B premium is $134 – unchanged from 2017. The difference is that many more Medicare recipients will have to pay the standard Part B premium this year, rather than a discounted one as in 2016 and 2017.

There will be no change to the annual Part B deductible. It will stay at $183 in 2018. The annual Part A inpatient hospital deductible, though, is rising $24 to $1,340 in 2018. Those who happen to make more than $85,000 while receiving Medicare benefits face higher Part B premiums. They range from $187.50-$428.60 in 2018, the same as in 2017. On average, Part D premiums will drop by $1.20 in 2018.

Part C premiums are also projected to decrease. Medicare Advantage plans will have a mean monthly premium of $30.00 in 2018, according to CMS estimates, $1.91 lower than in 2017. If you are keeping your current Medicare Advantage plan, take note: the CMS projects that 77% of Medicare enrollees retaining their plans will see no premium increase or lower premiums in 2018.

In response to the increases in Medicare costs, should the method for figuring the annual Social Security COLA be changed? Perhaps it should be, as other metrics can be used.

When the federal government figures out annual COLAs for Social Security, it references the annualized advance in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). Critics argue that the CPI-W is the wrong benchmark. They feel COLAs should be calculated using the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E). The CPI-E only tracks spending for households headed by those aged 62 or older.

Back in 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics scrutinized both the CPI-W and CPI-E. It determined that the CPI-E gave greater weight to rent and mortgage expenses and health care costs, but slightly less weight to education, food, entertainment, clothing, and transportation expenses. The CPI-E may, therefore, be a better measure of senior expenses – and if it is ever used as a yardstick to measure Social Security COLAs, those COLAs might be larger.

Given all this, why does the federal government keep using the CPI-W to figure out COLAs? The CPI-E, it turns out, has flaws of its own. It does not include any Medicare Part A expenses, and the larger COLAs it would potentially generate for retirees would also help to speed the drawdown of Social Security’s coffers.

A 2.0% raise may not be much, but it beats what happened in 2016 and 2017. The 2017 COLA was only 0.3%, and retirees went without any COLA the year before.