Take Time for 3-Step Benefits Checkup

Online tools make it easy to check your Social Security and Medicare benefits.

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Social Security and Medicare have improved their online tools to make it easier for people to understand and check their benefits. Here are three steps you should take, at least annually—if not more often—to make sure you're taking full advantage of these important programs.

Social Security. You can now access your complete Social Security earnings history and benefits record online. The Social Security Administration previously mailed a printed annual statement to people every year, but stopped paper statements to save money. The agency took a lot of heat for its decision, because many people, especially seniors, don't have computers or Internet access. But Social Security said at the time that it would soon provide the same information online, and would still send paper statements to anyone 60 years of age or older. Well, it took ages to build the online tool, but better late than never.

Social Security is a complicated program and we need all the help we can get to understand it. The new online My Social Security site is a big improvement. Once you've arrived at its home page, you'll need to create a personalized account to access information about your earnings history, benefits projections, and related information. Don't be in a hurry to register. Social Security wants to make sure you are, well, you. So it asks people questions that only they would know answers to, about their pets, parents, and so forth. It also expects you to select a password that's not easy for anyone else to guess. This may take a few tries. (Note: For security purposes, consider saving your account password offline and not on your computer.)

Once your account is set up, here are the things Social Security says you'll be able to find.

• Estimates of the retirement and disability benefits you may receive

• Estimates of benefits your family may get when you receive Social Security or die

• A list of your lifetime earnings, according to Social Security's records

• The estimated Social Security and Medicare taxes you've paid

• Information about qualifying and signing up for Medicare

• Things to consider for those age 55 and older who are thinking of retiring

• General information about Social Security for everyone

• The opportunity to apply online for retirement and disability benefits

• A printable version of your Social Security statement

Use these features regularly to make sure you understand your benefits. If the site has discrepancies with what you think your earnings history and benefits should be, use the site's features to request an explanation.

Medicare Benefits. Healthcare costs are steep enough without leaving money on the table. Medicare beneficiaries are entitled to an impressive and growing array of free and reduced-price wellness and preventive health services.

You can share this list with your doctor during your annual free "wellness" screening visit, learn which procedures your doctor would recommend, and make any needed appointments. Here are the items on Medicare's checklist:

Abdominal aortic aneurysm screening

Bone mass measurement

Cardiovascular screening

Colorectal cancer screening

Fecal occult blood test

Flexible sigmoidoscopy

Colonoscopy

Barium enema

Diabetes screening

Diabetes self-management training

Flu shot

Glaucoma test

Hepatitis B shot

HIV screening

Mammogram

Medical nutrition therapy services

Pap test and pelvic exam (includes breast exam)

"Welcome to Medicare" preventive visit

Yearly "wellness" visit

Pneumococcal shot

Prostate cancer screening

Smoking cessation counseling

Medicare Claims. Like Social Security, Medicare provides personalized account information for beneficiaries. Users know that there often is a special Medicare headache in addition to their actual health issues. It occurs when trying to understand the summary claims forms that Medicare sends out to explain its charges. The agency is doing a major overhaul of the Medicare Summary Notice and has created a side-by-side comparison of the current and new notices. The new notices can be used online right away, and beginning next year, will be the standard as well for printed notices that are mailed to beneficiaries.

Twitter: @PhilMoeller