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The Douro river

Pablo Rodrigo García-ArÃ(degree/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Welcome to our Living in Retirement blog, where a recent retiree chronicles the ups and downs of her real-life retirement journey. Read her first blog here.

Many of the advertisements for a seamless retirement show happy couples on exotic holidays. Come November there's nothing I yearn for more than a lengthy vacation to a place where the weather remains above 20 degrees Celsius. Portugal, Costa Rica, Key West, I'm not fussy. But for me the choice is between health care coverage for myself and my loved ones or trips abroad.

When working full time I travelled with some frequency to London and New York. Now it's walking expeditions to restaurant-rich Ossington Ave. and Little Portugal in Toronto that bear the burden of transporting me to diverse places. Pho on Ossington is $25 for two, Churrasqueira chicken takeout from Little Portugal costs about the same and Dim Sum brunch in Chinatown even less.

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Living in a big city helps since our downtown Toronto community is so diverse I often imagine I'm in a different country. When The Globe and Mail began publishing a series of stories on Brampton, my partner and I starting driving north to Brampton to explore a plethora of Indian buffets.

There's no question that I've cut back on travel since retiring. The cash I might have allotted to bi-yearly trips across the pond is now going straight from my chequing account to my insurer in the form of regular expenses for health-care coverage. For comprehensive group medical, dental and drug coverage for my family and myself, the cost is $480 a month. Term life insurance for $130,000 and critical illness insurance for $50,000 adds $110 monthly to this expense until I am 65, when term life and critical illness are no longer available to me.

This is what my health plan covers: semi-private hospital care, 85 per cent of drug costs, 85 per cent of the cost of visiting a podiatrist, registered massage therapist, chiropractor or licensed psychologist. The list goes on. A new pair of glasses every two years, hearing aids, orthotic shoes, and medical devises. Who wouldn't shell out for this coverage - even if it meant no more theatre adventures in London's West End? When I reach 65, I'm able to opt out of certain expenses covered by OHIP for seniors. These plans are essential. Even the Senate is maintaining health benefits and life insurance for Senators suspended without pay.

After observing the U.S. Federal government shut down over the fight against Obamacare, I'm more than pleased to be paying for the plan I was offered by my long time employer. When my aunt and uncle, who lived in Arizona became ill, they were forced to sell their modest home. Without help from their children, the costs for their health insurance would have impoverished them. In 2008 their son, who is a few years older than I, lost his business. He has a heart condition and diabetes. During the Great Recession, his health coverage disappeared along with his livelihood. He and his wife owned a precariously mortgaged house that went under water during the housing crisis. Now they live with their daughter, son-in-law and three children in government quarters on a Texas military base.

Although I value my health care plan greatly, until my first meeting with Human Resources, I wasn't expecting the monthly deductions to be as high as they are for a non-smoking 62-year old female and her 21-year-old daughter. The biggest surprise was that dependent children under 25 are covered if they are full time university or college students, but the premium almost doubles for family coverage - regardless of whether you have one or 10 children. Despite the sharp increase, I never considered passing on family coverage.

When health care and life insurance benefits were automatically deducted from my bi-monthly paycheque by my employer, I didn't give them much thought. They were one of the perks of the job. Now that I'm slowly adjusting to living on a fixed income and every penny counts, I appreciate this coverage wholeheartedly even if it does cost dearly.

This fall I've gone back to working part time (more about that in my next blog.) My employer requires me to buy health insurance. If I decline coverage, I still must pay for it. It's not expensive, about $50 a month and can be used to supplement the claims not fully covered by my retiree plan. The complicated part is that if I opt out of retiree insurance while working part-time, I wouldn't be eligible to opt back in once I stop working.

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Every time I read about how much I'm going to be able to travel if I manage my retirement planning judiciously, I remind myself that comprehensive health care in Canada is not free, and that insurance plans are complex and loaded with clauses which dictate what you can and cannot do. But if it comes to a choice between Costa Rica and my chiropractor, I know which one I'll choose.

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