Introducing Ask Phil – A Curated Guide to Your Benefit Questions

Since co-authoring the first “Get What’s Yours” book in 2015, I have spent nearly seven years fielding reader questions. That first book was about Social Security. It sold lots of copies and led me to become a contributor to a PBS web site overseen by one of my co-authors, Paul Solman, who has been an esteemed economics correspondent there for a long time – at least since the early days of movable type.

I introduced Ask Phil to PBS readers and, being PBS readers, they responded in force. For the next five years, I received thousands of questions from them and others who had read or learned about the that first book and a second about Medicare that followed in 2016.

I was not paid for these pieces but saw them as a way of repaying people for all the Get What’s Yours books they bought and, to knock my white hat askew if not off my balding head, to get exposure and sell even more books. In exchange for this largess, PBS approved my request to own the copyright to Ask Phil and its content.

I have continued to answer reader queries. Nothing reveals what you know and don’t know better than having to answer questions. It also reveals subjects that readers most often find important to them, or confusing, or both. And it helps keep me on my toes about changes to the rules and workings of the Social Security Administration and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services that oversees Medicare.

Fast forward to today.

I love books and collections of them in wonderful spaces we call libraries. Sadly, the Internet has made lots of non-fiction books obsolete, particularly non-historical books. I’m sensitve to this phenomenon because those are the kinds of books I have written. The aging of such books adversely affects me in two ways.

My most recent book was an explanation of U.S. health care. It was published a year ago but the manuscript was submitted more than half a year earlier, guaranteeing that the book was out of date before the ink on its pages had dried. Publishers hustle where they can to shorten print schedules but, as we’ve seen with today’s supply chain gridlocks, it can take a lot of time to get printed copies of books into thousands of bookstores and the warehouses of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other mass booksellers.

The second factor involves my Social Security and Medicare books. Now approaching their seventh and sixth birthdays, respectively, they are increasingly seen by even loyal fans of the books as being very long in the tooth. I know this because I get those emails, too!

In reality, both books remain largely accurate and (cue my bias) useful subject guides. To justify a new edition of a book, my agent and publisher tell me, at least 30 percent of its content must be new. There haven’t been enough changes in either Social Security or Medicare to come close to this threshold.

Sales of older current-affairs books dwindle, and that’s the case here, even though they remain relevant. To close the time gap, I use the Get What’s Yours website to publish significant rule changes for both programs, most notably each year’s new levels of Social Security benefit levels and various income qualification metrics, and Medicare premiums and user co-pays.

What to do?

Well, I have saved all those reader questions and answers. I reviewed them and came up with a master list of the important things that people asked me over and over again. I wound up with about 135 questions and issues. I combined earlier answers, rewrote them to make sense, and then updated them so that they reflect current Social Security and Medicare rules. Lastly, I inserted lots and lots of links to official program rules and explanations.

I’m making all of this material available today through the Ask Phil link that appears at the top of this page. Just scroll through the topics to find what you’re looking for.

Collectively, these items work like an ebook. With the Internet, however, I think I can do better. The ebook you see here is not a fixed object but will be updated as rules change so that what you read is always accurate when you read it. I call Ask Phil a curated archive. Thinking of it as a living ebook works, too.

I am making this content freely available to anyone who wants it. I’ve always been better at creating content than figuring out how to make money at it. I suppose some copycat gremlin could repurpose this archive and monetize it. But if you want to make sure this content is accurate, Ask Phil is the only place that can provide that assurance.

If you like what you see, tell your friends and colleagues. And, to my journalistic colleagues, I’d extend the offer to quote these materials and email me for any additions and clarifications.

Lastly, please hold me accountable. If you spot incomplete or inaccurate answers, I absolutely want to hear about it. Readers remain my best guide to relevancy and accuracy.

Thank you!