Don’t Wait Until Retirement to Make Plans for the Medicare Years

When I’m 65

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Barbara Kirksey knows firsthand the challenges of navigating the Medicare system.

She and her husband, Fred, weren’t aware of a technicality regarding signing up for a prescription-drug coverage plan, so he now pays a $13 penalty each month, for as long as he lives.

“The same thing happened to a family member,” said Kirksey, a Monticello great-grandmother and registered nurse. “I wanted to prevent other people from falling into that trap.”

For five years, Kirksey has been volunteering as a counselor for Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elderly, or SHINE, a program run by the state Department of Elder Affairs and the Florida Area Agency on Aging.

Kirksey is among 35 volunteers locally and 500 statewide who help residents navigate the complicated world of Medicare, which often spins in far-reaching directions.

Coping with Medicare is just one of the issues people face when they reach that big number: 65. But it’s a major one — and a common concern in Florida.

There are an estimated 4.8 million residents who are 60 and over in the state, with Florida ranking first in the nation for population percentage of elders (about 25 percent).

“Eighty-five-plus is the fastest growing group we have in Florida,” said Ashley Marshall, director of communications for the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.

There are nearly 4 million Floridians on Medicare, which provides health insurance for people over age 65 as well as disabled residents who qualify for the program.

“The most paralyzing component is thinking you have to face Medicare yourself, and that’s not the case here,” said Jeff Johnson, state director of Florida AARP. “It doesn’t hurt to have a second set of eyes take a look at what you’re thinking.”

While there are various classes offering Medicare help, SHINE is the major resource for helping people understand the process — and much more. These volunteers, who go through an intensive training and vetting process, are located in 11 areas around the state, offering phone and personal counseling. Their services are free, unbiased and confidential.

Counselors also help Medicare recipients apply for financial assistance programs and truly understand their benefits.

“A lot of people don’t know what benefits they have,” Kirksey said. She helped one woman who was overpaying for a pain patch costing her $300 a month. It turns out the elderly woman only had to pay $5 for generic or $15 for brand-name patches under retirement coverage she didn’t realize she had.

“There are so many scenarios for how people are covered for health insurance,” said Patty Shaffer, SHINE training consultant with the Department of Elder Affairs. “A lot of what we do is educate people to understand this crazy maze.”

One tricky issue: Not everyone retires at 65 anymore. For Social Security, the age of retirement with full benefits is age 66 if you were born before 1955, and 67 if you were born after that. But many decide to retire as early as 62.

For those who have already signed up for Social Security, a Medicare card will automatically come in the mail, and then the choices begin.

“People not immediately eligible for Social Security tend not to pay attention to Medicare,” AARP spokesman Dave Bruns said.

And that’s a mistake.

Experts advise those eligible for Medicare who are still working to apply for Medicare Part A, since it can supplement their health insurance. It’s also vital to learn about penalties and just what to expect from Medicare coverage, even for those who don’t need it yet.

People often expect Medicare to be their total safety net, and that’s not the case, experts say.

“A lot of people think Medicare is free,” said Janet Mills, a SHINE volunteer based in Treasure Island who has helped more than 10,670 people with Medicare counseling. She became a volunteer counselor after SHINE helped her with Medicare choices.

“Use the resources that are out there,” Marshall advises seniors. “The bottom line is there are a lot of decisions to make. Don’t avoid it. Don’t procrastinate. Get educated and empower yourself with the help of a program like SHINE.”

When you’re ready to go on Medicare, you’ll have plenty of options, but how you receive your benefits comes down to two main choices.

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