There are two later-in-life accomplishments of which I am extremely proud. The first was earning my doctorate in my 50s. But lagging not far behind was my successful enrollment in Medicare, which I achieved on the verge of turning 65.
Not just Parts A and B (known as “Traditional Medicare”), mind you. I also figured out whether it would be better for me to sign up for a Medicare Advantage plan (aka, Part C) or a Medigap plan (sometimes called Medicare Supplement), the difference between Medigap plans A, B, C, D, F and G and I, whether to go for a high-deductible Medigap plan and how to choose a Part D Prescription Drug plan.
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Six Folders and Hundreds of Brochures
It wasn’t easy. By the time I made my final Medicare decisions, I had received enough direct mail solicitations to fill six hanging folders with hundreds of brochures. On top of that, I made dozens of calls to: Medicare and Social Security offices (Social Security is the parent agency of Medicare), the free Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program (800-434-0222), my financial planner and insurance advisers, representatives of private insurance companies and a couple of firms specializing in offering Medicare advice.
There were also frequent visits to websites, conversations with older friends and family members and chats with convention booth representatives at AARP and American Society of Aging conferences.
My research was book-ended by visits to my local Social Security office so I could speak directly with staffers about enrolling in Medicare.
At last, I am proud to report that I can hoist my red, white and blue Medicare card aloft. I did this. And so can you when age 65 approaches.
What makes signing up for Medicare complicated is that there are so many options. That means every one of us aiming to master the system will need to put in the time to come up with a customized solution.
That’s why I’m going to avoid telling you exactly what to do.
Instead, I’m going to share with you my five proudest moments while signing up for Medicare. I hope my experience will provide you with insight and inspiration as you embark upon the daunting task of making your Medicare decisions.
My 5 Proudest Moments Enrolling in Medicare
1. My financial adviser asked me for Medicare advice. Having run a marketing communications company for years, I’ve long relied on money pros for their expertise. Consequently, I assumed I could call on my most trustworthy counselor to learn which Medicare plans and coverage would be best for me. I was wrong.
When I called her, I said I knew that I wanted a high-deductible Medicare supplemental policy (an “F” plan) that would not get more expensive every year just because I’d be growing older. She insisted such policies weren’t available in California, where I lived. So I struck out on my own and through hours of online research and phone calls, found exactly the type of policy I’d had in mind.
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After I dropped her a quick, polite email to let her know, my phone rang immediately. She asked me for the name of the insurer, not just for herself, but so she could do a better job for clients in the future.
2. I knew my favorite older cousin’s Medicare coverage wasn’t the best plan for him (or me). Like him, many older friends and family members I spoke with were well-meaning, but loyal to Medicare decisions that served them well in the past. They weren’t able to provide much insight into my situation, though. After doing my homework, I determined the coverage I should have and told my cousin why he should reconsider his.
Ultimately, I came to realize that my relatives and friends could probably get more coverage for less money if they'd be willing to take a fresh look at their options.
(Note to self: Don’t get complacent about your initial Medicare choices. I plan to give myself a yearly Medicare coverage check-up during the open enrollment period in December. It will be one of my annual routines, right up there with doing my taxes.)
3. I realized someone from Social Security really will call back. The automated phone message on Social Security’s information line said I could hang up and a representative would return the call, but I didn’t believe it.
Over the years, I’ve developed a healthy dose of skepticism about automated phone messages in general and anything associated with the government.
So it was an act of faith that when I was offered the call back option, I pressed the appropriate buttons trusting I wouldn’t lose my place in line. Minutes later, I heard a live person on the other end of the line and my years of distrust with governmental bureaucracy were undone with a simple “Hello.”
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What’s more, I came to find with growing astonishment and delight that many (though not all) of the Medicare and Social Security representatives I met were well-informed, compassionate, patient and eager to serve. Just keep in mind that Social Security offices have been closing 30 minutes early each day since last fall and started closing at noon on Wednesdays, as of Jan. 2, 2013, according to U.S. News and World Report.
As an aside, I should point out that once you get the hang of it, Medicare’s website — Medicare.gov — is also surprisingly helpful and trustworthy.
4. I discovered I knew enough about Medicare to throw out unopened solicitation brochures. At first, I read every solicitation that arrived in the mailbox cover to cover — albeit, often with a grain of salt. This education gave me a good grounding in the Medicare basics from some of the brightest creative minds in the marketing world who’d come up with an array of illuminating, lovely charts and graphs.
But after plowing through the first dozen or so brochures, I became adept at uncovering two things. The first was the hidden gems of information that opened up whole new avenues of inquiry. For instance, one brochure taught me the desirability of an issue-aged Medicare supplemental policy which wouldn’t increase in price every year due to my age.
The second was how not to get fooled by breathless, one-size-fits-all solutions. Trust me: when you find yourself laughing at certain assertions and promises about Medicare, realizing what’s left unsaid, you’ll have an awakening of your own.
5. I did it! My Medicare card arrived. I wish this whole process had been easier; it would have been great if my advisers had simply told me what to do and I could have trusted them.
But I’m proud of my accomplishment, feeling not only confident but invested in my decisions.
Above all, I’m grateful that Medicare is here for me and for all Americans 65 or older. I just hope it’ll be here for us and for younger generations for years to come.