Keeping up with the Medicare Information Office
President Reagan's quote, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help," is often used to disparage the "help" offered by many bureaucrats; but it's a completely different feeling when you call or drop by Alaska's Medicare Information Office (MIO). First, you're greeted with a smile and a meaningful, "How can I help you?" You truly get the feeling they want to help.
The office recently moved to 400 Gambell, with easy parking and private offices for confidentiality – a nice change after years of being located in a smaller, less accessible office, says health program manager Judith Bendersky.
The main functions of the Medicare Information Office are to help seniors and Alaskans with disabilities navigate Medicare and to educate Alaskans about Medicare fraud, including identify theft. More than 73,000 Alaskans are currently on Medicare, this number growing 43 percent from 2009 to 2013.
"We're swamped," said Bendersky, "but we're efficient problem solvers, and we do as much as we can with the resources we have. We're able to help about 8,000 people a year. When clients contact us, they are frustrated, disappointed, exasperated, confused, angry and aging," notes Bendersky. "It's difficult even for someone fluent in English to understand what's going on; it's especially difficult when the person doesn't speak English. We are fluent in Medicare."
Some of the questions often asked:
I'm turning 65, help!
Which is the best prescription drug plan for me?
I'm 70 and just retiring. What's my penalty?
I have AlaskaCare. Why do I have to sign up for Medicare?
I'm a veteran and Alaska Native, so what do I need to do?
Other areas of education include:
• Billing claims
• Coordination of benefits
• Coverage questions
• Fraud calls and complaints. Villagers are especially preyed on. A letter arrives, saying they'll get free medical appliances because they're on Medicare. A form asks the client for their Social Security and Medicare numbers, and other personal information, which can lead to fraudulent activity in the name of the client.
During my recent visit to the office, a Korean man, who spoke no English, arrived seeking Medicare help. He was accompanied by an interpreter from the Korean community. (The office will provide an interpreter for any language, if needed.)
The client turned 65 more than a year ago, but didn't apply for Medicare. He has no assets and his only income is $800 per month from a part-time job. He was quite concerned about penalties for not signing up and not being able to afford hundreds of dollars per month in Medicare premiums.
Following an assessment, he was relieved when Bendersky assured him that if he meets the low-income guidelines, the state will pay the premiums and penalties. She gave him a thick document-the application for Medicaid-and recommended he complete it and get it turned in right away.
She even telephoned Alaska's Division of Health Care Services while the client was in the office to determine what order he should apply for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, so no application ends up in a perpetual pending status between the various federal and state agencies.
As the men were leaving, the interpreter, who has worked with the office in the past, said, "She [Bendersky] is professional, calm and logical. I respect them [the office staff]."
Making the grade
The Medicare Information Office is graded by the federal government and compared with similar agencies across the country. The Sept. 2013 report shows Alaska's officce to be the tenth most successful out of 54 in the U.S. Bendersky said their rating has consistently improved since she joined the office in 2008 and made data entry a priority.
The federal criteria includes the number of clients served, how many are low-income or disabled (20 percent of Alaskans on Medicare are disabled); outreach and education. Bendersky uses the data to identify and increase outreach to underserved areas of the state.
Up for the challenge
Bendersky shared stories of some of the issues faced by Alaskans.
"People have called us from their car when they were turned down at their pharmacy for their diabetes medicine. They passed out while on the phone with us, and we had to call 9-1-1.
"The first three months of the year are the worst," Bendersky noted, "because people don't realize they have to sign up every year for Medicare Part D. Their premium may have gone up, and they ignored the notice, so they no longer have coverage. Or their carrier no longer covers the prescriptions they're on. One person didn't realize she shouldn't have her prescriptions mailed to her, and her eye drops arrived frozen."
These issues and more are handled by Bendersky; Jeanné Larson, lead trainer and counselor; three grantees; an extensive team of part-time trained volunteers including nurses, doctors and social workers; and a dozen certified counselors and 60 volunteers across the state.
The office operates with $458,000 in federal grants to function as the State Health Insurance Program (SHIP) and the Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP). It partners with hundreds of agencies and organizations who work with seniors to "get the word out."
"If [agencies and organizations] touch aging Americans-and who doesn't?-then we try to work with them," said Bendersky. In rural Alaska, information is often sent with food boxes, delivered by high school students riding snowmachines.
"We receive referrals from anyone who has constituents: The Governor's Office, Senators Murkowski and Begich, Congressman Young, Alaska legislators, even the White House."
When Alaskans call the toll-free number on their Medicare handbook, they are redirected to the Medicare Information Office.
"Most people are helped by just a phone call to our office," Bendersky said. Callers are often surprised to have a 'real person' answer the phone. Administrative Assistant Yvette Miller is new to the team. She answers the phone and identifies the callers by type of problem. As a counselor becomes available, she returns the call. This begins the process of providing information, forms, referrals or in-depth advocacy.
One of the best ways the Medicare Information Office educates Alaskans is through seminars.
"Need Help Through the Medicare Maze?" is held quarterly in Anchorage at the Loussac Library, 6 to 8:30 p.m. The next one is scheduled for March 18.
Staff also travel around the state to conduct presentations and workshops.
If you have Medicare questions or want to become a volunteer, call for details: 269-3680 in Anchorage or 1-800-478-6065 statewide, or online at http://www.medicare.alaska.gov.