The Foreign Service Journal - March 2018

STAY INFORMED. STAY CONNECTED. Meet Your Retiree Counselor BY TODD THURWACHTER As AFSA’s retiree counselor, I want all members to know about and get the most from the federal benefits that you have earned. A Foreign Service retiree myself, I know the challenge of transition: losing the network of colleagues with whomwe worked for decades and suddenly facing a gamut of retirement decisions that few of us gave much thought to while on active duty. Yet our decisions on these consequential issues—the best FEHB plan to meet changing healthcare needs, signing up for Medicare Part B, when to draw Social Security, withdrawals from TSP, minimizing taxes and maximizing estates, FEGLI coverage and beneficiaries, the impact of divorce on retirement benefits, secur- ing survivor benefits and more—can save or cost each of us thousands of dollars over the years. That’s why I am passionate about reach- ing all AFSAmembers with information that enables them to navigate retirement issues themselves, to make sound decisions and avoid common pitfalls. For starters, AFSA sends members a bimonthly digital Retiree Newsletter with “news you can use” about your federal benefits.We also address key retiree topics in The Foreign Service Journal ’s AFSANews Retiree Corner and Retiree VP column. Our annual Directory of Retired Members has an extensive “AFSA Resources” section, and we post overviews of retiree issues on AFSA’s Retiree Services page (www. . For retirees in the D.C. area, we bring in experts to lead presentations on federal benefits like Medicare, TSP and Social Security. To share that information with AFSA members worldwide, we then post videos of those presenta- tions on AFSA’s website, add- ing quick 10-minute overviews to provide busy members information they need. After becoming confused on websites and battling phone menus, members tell me they most appreciate reaching a real person who listens, cares and can cut through the confusion with straight answers. Since start- ing at AFSA in January 2014, I have handled some 1,400 cases assisting individual members who contacted us for help. During 2017 alone, I dealt with more than 350 such cases (60 percent by email and 38 percent by phone). In 2017 top issues that members sought help with were: annuities (13 percent), FEHB (9 percent), survivor benefits (7 percent), taxes (7 percent), retiree membership (6 percent) and Medicare (5 percent). While emails predominate generally, survivor issues are almost always handled over the phone. It is a privi- lege to provide the peace of mind we promise retirees by personally helping their loved ones secure all their survivor benefits. Often my most valuable role is determining why and where a bureaucratic process has stalled and getting it back on track. For example, after months of trying unsuccess- fully, an ailing 95-year-old was not hopeful of getting survivor benefits confirmed for his third spouse; AFSA got a con- firmation in days. An overseas retiree considered dropping AFSAmembership after 41 years as “not much benefit,” but recommitted when we quickly got the right people to solve his problem after he had tried unsuccessfully for more than a year. In the last two years we have helped retirees locate needed forms after State ceased mailing out their Annual Retiree Newsletter, which contained those forms. When retirees found it virtu- ally impossible to reach the Office of Personnel Manage- ment to confirm their FEGLI coverage and beneficiaries, AFSAworked with State’s Office of Retirement to facili- tate filing new SF2823s, an effective workaround. After State initially stated that “no data of State Department employees”was affected by the 2015 OPM data hack, we got the straight scoop for our members. In 2016 the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program premium spike caused a tsu- nami of contacts from angry members.We quelled rumors and confusion with accurate information, enabling mem- bers to assess new FLTCIP options.We helped ensure that the almost 100 members who contacted us received good FLTCIP counseling, even setting up one-on-one con- sultations with FLTCIP reps at AFSA for 29 members. By the deadline, all but a couple had found a satisfactory option. Here’s where to start if you have a retirement ques- tion or concern: Check out AFSA’s Retiree Services page ( ) and the FAQs on State’s RNet website (https://rnet.state . gov). Contact State’s Human Resources Service Center at or call (866) 300-7419 (you’ll reach a real person quickly by phone). If you still have questions or unresolved issues, don’t hesitate to contact me. It often takes only minutes to confirm you are on the right track, point you in the right direction or, in some cases, protect you frommaking a costly mistake. I normally work Mondays,Wednesdays and Thursdays (thurwachter@; (202) 944-5509). n THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | MARCH 2018 71 Todd Thurwachter