DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is one of the toughest money decisions Americans face as they age - whether to buy long-term care insurance. Medicare usually doesn't cover long-term care, and lengthy assisted-living stays can swallow retirement savings. But long-term care insurance requires a long-term commitment. Steve Tripoli looks into who it suits best.
STEVE TRIPOLI, BYLINE: Suzanne and Bob O'Donnel, of Marshfield, Mass., were in their mid-50s when a financial adviser convinced them long-term care insurance makes sense - as does buying it before you're old. Here's Bob.
BOB O'DONNEL: And it has turned to be true because, later on, a lot of our friends have tried to buy it, and either been rejected or their premiums are prohibitive.
TRIPOLI: So that's the first lesson. Shopping before health problems set in improves your chances of being accepted, while tempering lifetime premium payments. The O'Donnels, retired now, covered the three main bases for a policy when they bought, 13 years ago, a good sized monthly benefit, inflation protection and ample years of coverage. Suzanne O'Donnel says, they also covered more personal needs.
SUZANNE O'DONNEL: Right. We just wanted to not be a burden to our children. And we also wanted to be more secure in where we'd be able to end up.
TRIPOLI: She'd seen her grandmother spend years in a nursing home that Suzanne didn't like. Their policy is expensive - the premium just rose to $440 a month. That's partly because they bought a 5 percent inflation rider that, in just a dozen years, has raised their initial $6,000 monthly benefit to over $11,000. That's about what a nursing home in the Northeast costs these days. Boston-area insurance broker, Scott Bunker, says the O'Donnels aren't typical. He sees a lot of potential insurance buyers in their 50s and early 60s.
SCOTT BUNKER: Then they look at it. They think, jeez, this makes an awful lot of sense, but it's so long between now and when I expect that I'm going to need it. And so they'll put it off for a little while. And then, a year or two goes by, and you'll get a phone call, and people will say, OK, we're ready to move.
TRIPOLI: Bunker says, that's often because they've seen a relative start needing care. As with any insurance, you're playing the odds that you'll need us. Tony Webb, at Boston College's Center for Retirement Research, has been studying the care needs of today's retirement cohort.
TONY WEBB: And we find that men, aged 65, have a 44 percent chance of ever going into care. And women, aged 65, have a 58 percent chance of ever going into care.
TRIPOLI: Those odds are for all types of care - from expensive nursing homes, to assisted living in your own home or a facility. A good insurance policy covers all three places. Most people average less than a year in care. The risk is that it can go much longer. Another risk is that policy buyers won't realize they're taking on a long-term commitment. Tony Webb.
WEBB: If you're taking out a policy in your 50s, the claim may be made in 30 years' time. And therefore, you have to be confident of being able and willing to pay the premiums for a very long period of time.
TRIPOLI: Stop paying, and you'll lose your whole investment. How much coverage should you purchase? Broker Scott Bunker says, there are two ways to think of that question.
BUNKER: So when I talk to folks, I talk in terms of a full-insurance strategy or a co-insurance strategy. So full-insurance would be $10,000 or $11,000 a month. Co-insurance would be, sort of, $7,000 a month - where they'd have to come out of pocket $3,000 or $4,000.
TRIPOLI: So who needs this insurance? In short, people between rich and poor, who want or need to protect assets for a spouse or heirs. If you're wealthy, you can bypass insurance and pay for care yourself. If you have few assets, you can risk going without insurance, and watch those assets melt away before Medicaid kicks in. Heading into retirement, Suzanne and Bob O'Donnel think they got a good deal with their policy, even though the years of premium payments add up.
B. O'DONNEL: We've had it for 13 years. And in 13 years we've spent about $63,000, which, as I understand it, wouldn't be one year of good quality care.
TRIPOLI: And Bob says, buying while still in their 50s got them more coverage than if they'd waited.
B. O'DONNEL: I think we were lucky - better than wise, I think. Because we did it earlier, the amount of money we were going to spend afforded us a lot more bells and whistles than if we had waited longer to do it.
TRIPOLI: One last caution if you're shopping for this coverage. Be sure that ratings agencies say the insurer you're dealing with has a very strong long-term financial position. You're entering what could be a 30-plus year marriage, so you want to be sure your insurance partner is there for you in sickness, not just health. For NPR News, I'm Steve Tripoli.
GREENE: To get an idea for how much long-term care costs in your state, you can visit our website, npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.