Monday, March 29, 2010
Wending Your Way Through The Medicare Maze
(Above: Lyndon Johnson signs the Medicare bill)
I'm going to turn 65 next week, which means I'm eligible for Medicare.
That's the good news. The bad news is that I have to choose among a bewildering array of competing Medicare plans.
Do I want a Medigap policy - and there are dozens of different ones to choose from - or do I want an HMO or a PPO? And what happens if I change my mind down the road?
For the last few months, I've been inundated with letters and phone calls from insurance companies, each one claiming their Medicare plan is the best and all the others stink.
I've piled all the letters in a huge heap in my living room that dwarfs the mini-mountain Richard Dreyfuss built on his dining room table in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
Two months ago, I got a call from a guy who said, "I represent all the insurance companies offering Medicare policies in Northern California, and I'm here to hold your hand through the application process." Great, huh?
Not really. After asking for a lot of personal information, he said, "Let's you and me call Medicare together. But don't say a word. I'll do all the talking."
Uh oh. Red flag. So I said, "Will I have to give out my Social Security number?"
"Of course," he said.
"I'll tell you what," I said. "I'll call Medicare myself." And I hung up. I don't mind telling the Medicare people my Social Security number, but I sure wasn't going to reveal it to a total stranger.
So I called Medicare and talked to a very nice woman and told her what had just happened.
"Thank goodness you hung up," she said. "He's probably either a scam artist trying to get your personal information for identity theft, or he's an insurance broker trying to steer you toward the company that pays him the highest commission."
Whew! Dodged that bullet. But I was still stuck at square one; namely, how do I decide among all those competing policies?
"Not to worry," she said. "There's a free counseling service called HICAP (short for Health Insurance Counseling & Advocacy Program). It's funded by the state and federal governments, and they can help you sort all this out. Give them a call."
So I did. And it was just as she said. I talked with a friendly and knowledgeable volunteer counselor who cut through all the gobbledygook and helped me choose the plan that will work best for me.
In fact, she knew more about each plan than the insurance salesmen I talked with, many of whom were shockingly misinformed about the details of their own policies.
I only wish I had called HICAP months ago. It would have saved me a lot of frustration.
HICAP has in-person counseling sites throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties. (There are six in my hometown of Berkeley alone.) If you're approaching 65 or otherwise need help with Medicare, call 800-434-0222 and they'll set up an appointment at a location near you.
And if you'd like to become a counselor yourself, HICAP will hold a series of training sessions next month. Call 510-839-0393 if you live in Alameda County or 925-335-8791 if you live in Contra Costa.
Please consider volunteering to be a counselor. It's an opportunity to do a lot of good for a lot of people.