In spite of Medicare’s almost constant presence in the news recently, most U.S. investors still grossly underestimate how much they will need to save to cover the costs of healthcare in retirement, it emerged in a webcast last night from Wells Fargo’s retirement group.

The average investing couple surveyed by Wells believes they will need to save $68,000 to cover their healthcare costs in retirement about four times less than the real estimate of $250,000-$300,000, according to Karen Winbush, director of Retail Retirement at Wells Fargo. “There’s a big disconnect between reality and actuality,” she said.

“Let’s Talk – Healthcare, the Economy and Retirement,” was hosted by financial columnist Jean Chatzky, and featured Winbush along with Nancy Davenport-Ennis, founder and CEO of the Patient Advocate Association and Paul Christopher, chief international strategist for Wells Fargo Advisors.

The panel gave some background information on the rising costs of health care, including pointing out that Medicare’s expenses have been outstripping the program’s income since 2008. In April the program’s trustees projected that the program’s trust fund for hospitalization will run out of money in 2024, if changes are not made. Changes that are being discussed by policy makers include changing eligibility and means testing program participants, possible hikes in payroll taxes to funnel more money into the program, raising premiums or raising deductables. Then Winbush pointed out that there are similar worries about the long-term viability of Social Security.

The panel gave tips on what investors can do to prepare – getting help from a financial advisor was a key piece of advice – and investors called in with questions.

One 68-year-old woman asked if she should retire now, or wait until she turns 70 to start claiming Social Security benefits. Winbush said without hesitation  that if the woman could wait, and she didn’t need the additional income, to stick it out. She noted that the woman’s benefits would climb about 8% each year she could wait.

Another caller asked whether buying long-term care insurance was a good idea. Winbush noted that although a couple could pay $4,000-$5,000 a year in premiums for coverage, the average cost of a health care facility is running $76,000 a year. “You could dissipate your savings over three, four or five years,” she said. “It’s a balancing act,” she said, posing the real dilemma: “’Should I pay for insurance I might never need?’ Talk about it with your family,” she advised, and get a sense of the family’s medical history, including expectations for longevity, going back to parents and grandparents.

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