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Social Security & Medicare for Retired American Expats in Thailand


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There are loads of information on the internet about how easy it is for Americans to receive Social Security payments while living overseas and to have Medicare protection if you go back home.  The web sites — many from the government — make it sound like it is a walk in the park and no different than if you lived in Eastern Oklahoma or Eastern China.  Well I am here to tell you that if you never have any questions or changes made or ever get older, it is easy.

BUT, if you are a normal person that will have an occasional change or problem, it does notwork smoothly, despite the social security administration telling you it will be.  There can be and there are lots of problems that can come up, and you cannot expect much assistance from the bureaucrats and clerks that work in the system.

I do not consider social security and US Medicare to be a “benefit”.  Since I was 16 years old, I have been paying into that system.  It is a very lousy return on my involuntary retirement investment (also sometimes accurately referred to as “confiscation”).  I am very sad for those younger than me that are obliged to continue to have their money taken away and are unlikely to get anything in the future.  That is WRONG, and it should be stopped.  (It will stop in the future one way or another because it cannot be sustained — all Ponzi schemes must end eventually). Right now more than 61 million Americans receive some form of Social Security benefits, and it is climbing.

If you can believe it, Medicare is facing unfunded liabilities of more than 38 trillion dollars over the next 75 years.  That comes to approximately $328,404 for each and every household in the United States — and that’s just for Medicare.  You don’t even want to hear about social security and all the other mandated redistribution schemes that will enslave future generations (unless it collapses). The Social Security system is facing a 134 trillion dollar shortfall over the next 75 years — understand that the total GDP (everything America produces by everybody in the country in a year) is 15 trillion dollars.

As an Expat, I am often discriminated by US official decree.   Because I am living overseas, I do not have it easy to vote, I have extra tax reporting obligations and my elected representatives care little about us living outside of the country.   There is no one in government that is there to help Americans living abroad.  I can accept that because I have the benefit of not living with US nanny state overreach into my private life everyday like most living in the 50 States.  So I am not complaining much (on this post anyway) about how Expats are short changed in other areas.

I have the most simple system possible for my social security.  My checks are deposited in my US bank, and I draw out the money as needed from a local ATM.  Fortunately, I have one of the very few banks in the world where I get no charge for using an ATM anywhere on Earth, plus has no conversion fee for changing currency (that bank is the Bank of Charles Schwab).  I maintain a US address as I still own a home in California.

Greg’s Elaborate Saga When Changing Bank Accounts for the Social Security Deposit

(a bit of a rambling rant and perhaps boring tale that you may want to skip reading.  It’s OK).

One day, I had one of my checks that were sent directly from my bank account stolen, and the perpetrator managed to deposit the stolen check.  My bank insisted that I change my bank account — same bank, just a different account number and ATM card.  The stolen money was returned to my bank account, and it was a fairly routine easy change.  But to change my automatic deposit with social security became a bit of nightmare.

In the US, it is easy to just pick up the phone and call the toll free number for social security and make the change.  If you live in Northern Thailand, social security instructs you to visit your local US consulate, and for me that is very close to my home.  Easy.

You cannot simply walk in to the consulate.  You must make an online appointment, which allows you to come in about a week later.  Still no big problem.  But in the consulate, they don’t want to very hear much about social security.  They just hand you a scrap of paper telling you that you must call the nearest social security office which is in Manila, Philippines.    OK, still no big problem.

When you call the social security office in Manila as instructed, you automatically get a voice recording saying that they are busy and if I leave name and number they will call me back.  I learned that this is just a pacifier, since I have yet to receive a call back after 5 messages.

So I sent the Manila social security office an email.   No response.  And another, and another, and another.  Nine emails before I finally got an email response.  During this time, I also wrote an email to the social security head office in Baltimore.  They replied that they would forward my message to the Manila social security office, my closest SS office who would reply quickly. Ha.

So 18 days after starting this, I finally get an email back from a SS agent.  She seemed efficient.  After taking down all the details over a dozen or so more emails, she assured me that it was all taken care of with the automatic deposit.

When my pay date rolled through and I did not get any money, I again tried to reach the Manila SS office.  After a few attempts, I got the same helpful agent.  She now tells me that it takes two months to get the account switched, and during that period I will not be paid.

After letting that sink in, I was a bit furious.  That would mean that since the time I had started trying to reach social security to change my bank account number, it would be about two and half months before they could complete that task, and I would get no social security payment during that waiting period.  The agent told me that there nothing I can do, and she did her job and that’s it.  Me being me, I wrote to the head office in Baltimore, and after getting the name of the director of the Manila SS office, I wrote her a very strong letter, letting her know that I would starve to death during that two and half months but I would be contacting every US congressman and senator about my plight.  After several angry emails from me to the Manila office, the director apologized for the problem and had her agent start working on the problem.

It is now corrected.   It took 30 days and tons of emails and lots of calls.  For anyone not able or unwilling to do all this, they would not get their payment.  I lost sleep and was aggravated.  All just to change my bank account number for my auto deposit.

The Medicare Plan B Scam on Expats

OK, during the last month I became a bona fide old guy; I passed my 65th birthday.  Besides all the other trauma of reaching this age, a person also becomes eligible for Medicare (which most of us having been paying on for decades).

Medicare has a plan A for hospital visits (which one gets automatically with age and there are no premiums) and plan B for doctor visits (which has a monthly premium).  You cannot use Medicare outside of the US, so if you reside overseas it is not prudent to pay for plan B.

The kicker is that Medicare automatically signs you up for Plan B even if you did not sign up for it, and starts deducting the premium each month from your social security check.  I was somewhat aware that they did this, so I specifically planned for it.  Before turning 65, I wrote to the social security office in Manila and to the head social security office in Baltimore, stating in writing specifically that I do not want to sign up for Plan B of Medicare.

Not enough.  They deducted for Plan B even though I did not sign up for it and despite my letters specifying that I do not want it.  I have learned from an American expat in Japan that you cannot cancel the Plan B Medicare on the phone and that social security requires one to visit the social security office so that we can be consulted about the decision to not participate in this program (which we can’t use) and make premium payments.  There is a form that can be completed to cancel the plan, but social security will not mail it outside of the US.

So if you work out something, you may be able to have the form sent to your US address or have it go to a friend in the US that will forward the form to you overseas.  A very long process.

After you complete the form, you mail it back to social security and send it registered (which requires a signature from the person getting it).  Here is the kicker:  Social Security will not sign for registered mail.  Your form will go back to the post office and sit.  And there will be no change to your account.  So now you must do the whole process again, but this time do not send the form registered or requiring a signature, and after just a few months, they may stop deducting for Plan B from your social security.

Here is what I have learned about the government medical system for the retired: 

 Medicare is not a health care guarantee for U.S. citizens. It’s a payment guarantee for the U.S. health care industry. This becomes obvious when you try to take advantage of the lower costs of international health care — and learn that Medicare (which, on paper, should seek to cut costs) doesn’t want to let you.

If you start a business in your country of residence while living abroad, and are self-employed, you must pay self-employment taxes in the US (“SECA” contributing to Medicare and Social Security) in addition to those in your country of residence unless the US citizen/green card holder lives or works in a country which has a Totalization Agreement with the US. The self-employment tax rules apply no matter how old you are and even if you are already receiving Social Security.   So while you may have to continue to pay taxes for a Medicare program you cannot use, you will also be required to pay a premium for the Medicare insurance that you cannot participate in, unless you go to great lengths (and cost) to stop.

Now the US is about ready to embark on a labyrinth medical system euphemistically called Obamacare or the totally ridiculous name of “Affordable Care Act”.  The government has done such a marvelous screw job on expats with Medicare, I am sure we will have it easy with this one.

Your comments or own story about how good or bad you have had it with social security and/or Medicare would be appreciated.  Please share your experience and ensure you get some decent Thailand expat health insurance coverage.

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