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Barbara Whelehan writes Boomer Bucks for Bankrate.comHealth care an ailing condition in the U.S.

Imagine this scenario: You just turned 55 and are on the last lap of your career as the retirement finish line looms on the horizon. You and your spouse have a sizable nest egg saved up, and over the next decade you hope to double your retirement assets by putting away additional savings and, with any luck, getting a decent return on your investments.

That's not bad, you reason, since you already have a multiple of the $60,000 that the average retiree saves up for retirement, according to the latest alarmist retirement study.

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Well, don't be so smug. If you were to retire today, you'd need about $295,000 just to pay for health-care costs for you and your spouse, according to a new study released by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. That's for couples who have access to employment-based retiree health benefits and who live only to their average life expectancies (82 for men; 85 for women). Those who live to age 95 should have $550,000 socked away for pills, hospital stays, doctor visits and the like.

Couples who plan to retire in 10 years at age 65 should save up $560,000 to pay for health-care costs if they live to their average life expectancies, according to the study.

Are you prepared? I'm not! Let's not go into cardiac arrest here because then we're likely going to need even more money! So we'll take three deep yoga breaths and assimilate the facts calmly.

A quick observation
The $295,000 estimate for couples facing imminent retirement is an average number. It assumes that they have access to an employment-based health-care plan and that they will pay full premiums of the plan as well as out-of-pocket medical expenses.

However, retiring couples who do not have access to an employment-based plan "will need $154,000 to cover premiums for Medicare Parts B and D, Medigap and out-of-pocket prescription drug expenses if they have average drug use," according to the study.

So if signing up for the Medicare plan and all its parts and pieces costs about half as much as an employment-based plan, does it make sense for retirees to shun their employment-based plans?

"It's not that simple," says Paul Fronstin, a spokesman for EBRI. For instance, he says, if you happen to be a high-end user of prescription drugs (meaning you spend about $5,100 a year rather than the median amount of $1,163), then you'll need to have $299,000 saved up to cover those costs if you sign up for Medicare.

"And it doesn't take much to get up there," Fronstin says of the $5,100 level. He cites a drug used for migraine headaches that costs one of his family members $300 a month. "You take someone with a couple of things like diabetes or heart disease or high blood pressure, and drug costs can add up pretty fast."

Health-care plans a burden for employers
Employers have been the main source of health-care benefits in this country, but such benefits for retirees are on the wane.

 
 
Next: "General Motors spent $5.3 billion last year for its employees"
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