By JANE BRYANT QUINN
You may find that your long-distance telephone bill keeps going up, despite the lower rates per minute that the phone companies promote. Two things are happening: You're paying more fees and getting hit with restructured charges.
Formerly, the best advice was "get on any calling plan," says Samuel Simon, founder of the Telecommunications Research & Action Center in Washington, D.C. Calling plans, offered by all the long-distance carriers, cost less than the carriers' standard rates.
But today, if you're on the wrong calling plan, "you could be paying nearly double what you would if you were on the right plan for the way you use the phone," Simon says.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission crowed that long-distance bills were going to fall. The commission lowered the fees that the carriers pay the local telephone networks for connecting through their lines.
That gave the carriers an estimated $1.5 billion windfall, which they were supposed to pass along to you.
Guess what? Although the carriers cut some rates, they've imposed a new "carrier line charge" or "access fee" on their customers. Generally it's 80 cents to $1.07 per account, according to TRAC. On average, consumers lost.
Keep America Connected, a consumer group based in Washington, D.C., recently tested some typical "baskets" or groups of calls. The result: "Most customers are paying more for their total long-distance bills than they were last September," says spokesperson Angela Ledford. The FCC should be eating crow.
Here's what else is going up:
? Calls at certain times of day. The major phone companies extended their weekday "daytime" calling periods, which cost the most. Day rates used to run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; now they go from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Nighttime rates are up too.
? Calls over shorter distances. The majors now charge a flat per-mile rate instead of rates that rise the farther away you call. Rates for faraway calls went down a little, while rates for closer calls went up.
? Directory assistance. The majors recently raised prices for their standard service.
? Pay-phone surcharges. When you call collect from a pay phone, the surcharge is around $2. Phones owned by little-known carriers may charge mile-high fees and rates. Starting in July, you'll have to be told, in advance, what your cost is going to be.
? Monthly minimums. Many calling plans now impose a minimum monthly fee ($1 to $5), combined with a lower per-minute rate. That helps high-volume users but raises fees on people who don't make a lot of calls.
? Random rates. If you place a call through a carrier that's not your own, dialing a special access code, you may pay a surcharge of $1.99.
? Universal service. There's a new fee to recoup what phone companies pay to help subsidize rural areas, the poor and others.
How do you get the best long-distance rates today? Try four things:
1) Call weekends (especially Sundays for MCI customers). That's when rates are lowest.
2) Find the cheapest calling plan. Web-heads can use TRAC's new Internet pricing service for interstate calls, at www.trac.org. Paper-and-pencil types can send for TRAC's Tele-Tips Residential Long Distance Comparison Chart ($5) or the Small Business chart ($7), P.O. Box 27279, Washington, D.C., 20005. Include a self-addressed, business-size envelope, with 55 cents worth of stamps.
Important note: The FCC may end mandatory disclosure of telephone rates and fees. If that happens, you'll lose TRAC and other services that compare prices for customers.
3) If you're calling from a phone that's not your own, consider a prepaid phone card, available at many stores. They typically cost $5 to $20. To use them, you dial an 800 number, punch in your card number, then dial the telephone number you're calling. As the call proceeds, the per-minute cost is deducted from your card account. The call cuts off when the money in your account runs out.
You typically pay a flat rate per minute for U.S. calls (19 to 41 cents), regardless of the time of day. There may be a separate connection charge for international calls.
4) Sign up for a plan through the Internet. America Online, MCI, Sprint and AT & T; all have calling plans at 9 cents or 10 cents a minute.
Medigap insurance information
I can tell you how to find the cheapest possible Medigap insurance policy. But I have to pass on a warning first: The policies that are low-priced when you're 65 will be hugely expensive when you're 85. You might have to drop them, because they cost too much. That's something you need to consider at the very start.
Medigap insurance is private coverage that picks up some of the bills that Medicare doesn't pay. By law, there are only 10 standard policies for most states.
The federal list begins with Policy A basic, bare-bones coverage. Policy J offers all the bells and whistles. At any insurance company, Policy A will cost the least and Policy J, the most. The other eight policies provide different mixes of these benefits, at varying prices in between.
Because each class of policy covers the same things, you might think that all the insurers charge about the same. Not so. One insurer might charge three times more than another.
Potentially, you have three places to turn for Medigap price comparisons.
Some state insurance departments publish Buyer's Guides. Ask your state insurance department (the phone number is in your Medicare Handbook).
You can sometimes find price lists at senior-service counseling organizations.
Otherwise, you can buy the information from Weiss Ratings at 800-289-9222. For $49, Weiss will rank your state's Medigap insurers, plan by plan, according to the premium they charge someone your age. (Rankings aren't available for the three states without standard Medigap plans.)
A big warning about the Weiss ratings: The attained-age policies are always the cheapest when you're around 65 to 75 and you may not realize that premiums will soar.
If you're considering an age-rated policy, ask the agent what you'd pay if you were 10 and 20 years older. Future premiums will rise even higher than they are today.
Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.
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