CADILLAC — Havey Hanna II set up 10 chairs in the Cadillac Library after he announced two free sessions on Navigating Medicare: Basics and Choices.

But 10 chairs weren’t nearly enough.

So Hanna has scheduled two more seminars at the library for today at 6:30 p.m. and again on Thursday, Nov. 7 at 6:30 p.m.

Hanna is a certified Medicare specialist with Fekete Knaggs and Burr. He’s a licensed insurance agent who passed the American Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) exam to become a Medicare advisor.

Across town at the Wexford County Council on Aging, staff members are gearing up for their busy season, the Medicare Fall Open Enrollment.

They counsel about 800 people every year during the two month period when seniors can review their plans and make changes, this year Oct. 15 to Dec. 7.

Kathy Kimmel, executive director of the Wexford County COA, has been a Medicare specialist for 10 years.

“We are an advocacy program,‘ Kimmel said. “We are trained and certified to counsel people about their options. But we are not licensed so we have no commissions associated with our work.‘

Nine months of the year the COA hosts Medicare Mondays to walk people through Medicare basics and typically have 12-20 people at those monthly sessions.

Medicare confusion — why seniors need a Medicare guru

Choosing a Medicare plan is so confusing that an entire network of help has emerged.

“You can see why we have to be trained,‘ said Kimmel. “During Open Enrollment all I do is counseling. Our agency has chosen to use millage funds to hire a fulltime Medicare specialist because we see the value of these educational programs.‘

People are first enrolled in Medicare through Social Security when they turn 65 or after a 24-month waiting period if they are deemed disabled.

Beneficiaries next choose to get their health care coverage in one of three ways.

1. They can remain in Original Medicare and add a supplemental plan called Medigap provided by private insurance companies. This can be done by working with an insurance agent or by contacting the company directly.

According to Kimmel, this route “limits your future out-of-pocket expenses for health care.‘

At the COA they have a tool that shows every Medigap policy sold in the state. It will estimate premium costs by age, zip code and gender. There are more than 50 companies that offer Medigap plans.

2. A second option is to remain in Original medicare and prescription drug plan without adding additional coverage. With this there are no out-of-pocket limits.

3. Or a senior can choose Medicare Advantage plans offered by private insurance companies who contract with the government.

There are 27 different Medicare Advantage plans, 25 of them available in Wexford County. Plans can differ from one county to the next.

All of this and more is explained in thick, detailed Medicare books.

“A person I was working with yesterday told me to just throw the book away,‘ said Kim Swanberg, a Michigan Medicare and Medicaid Assistance Program (MAP) certified counselor at the COA.

Swanberg has created two printouts that simplify the options. During her sessions, she walks seniors through the basics. Then she looks at the individual circumstances and needs.

How Medicare choices impact retirement expenses

Not only is Medicare not free, it can be expensive.

Last year the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study on the out-of-pocket expenses seniors face. In 2013 Medicare enrollees spent about 41% of a Social Security income on those expenses.

Fidelity Investments estimated that the average couple will spend $285,000 on health care after the age of 65, not including things not covered by Medicare like dental, basic vision, over-the-counter meds and long-term care.

This is why it is important to carefully consider all Medicare options to better manage expenses in retirement.

Where to get help with Medicare decisions

Most counselors and advisors that commit to the in-depth training and gruelling test taking required to become certified are genuinely trying to help people.

“You know it’s great when you find someone in the aisle at Home Depot that is helpful,‘ said Hanna, a retired math professor. “And in retirement my idea was to be helpful. This whole thing is a gargantuan ball of yarn. And people don’t know where to start or even what questions to ask. People need help to unravel this mess. There are nuances that aren’t in the books that are very helpful for people to be told about.‘

“Every time I hear those Advantage plans advertised on the television, I hear half-truths,‘ said Swanberg. “We get very specific, I go into detail about what direction a person can go. There are so many laws. I feel bad for people. I try to simplify it. And I can explain the extra help programs that are available to help defer some of the costs.‘

Wexford County Council on Aging

The Wexford County Council on Aging offers a free MMAP consultation for a Medicare plan review during open enrollment. You will meet with a certified counselor to go over the options available for changes in your Part D and Advantage plans for Medicare. The counselors provide facts on the different plans for coverage in 2020.

To schedule an appointment for free Medicare counseling where you can compare plans and prices, drop in at the office at 714 W. 13th St. in Cadillac where you can fill out the form needed. (231) 775-0133.

Free one-on-one counseling

Every state has a federally funded program that is not connected to any insurance company or health plan that offers free one-on-one counseling by phone. The State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) was established to help with plan choices, billing problems, complaints and medicare rights. The “free, objective‘ help is available in Michigan at 800-803-7174.

Consumers Reports recommends people visit medicare.healthcare.com, a site that provides free quotes and expert advice with no obligation. Users can compare 2020 Medicare plans in Michigan through this private company that has been helping consumers “make better decisions about their medicare coverage‘ since 2011.

Insurance agencies that sell Medicare Advantage plans have an agent who has passed the American Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) exam who is qualified to explain and sell Medicare Advantage plans from specific companies.

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