ESCANABA - At a time when navigating the health insurance industry's complexities can feel labyrinthine and convoluted on the best of days and downright impossible on others, local volunteers trained in the Medicare/Medicaid Assistance Program can help the Upper Peninsula's seniors and individuals with disabilities discover resources they didn't know were available and make the best possible decisions about their health care benefits.
"We help people - anyone on Medicare - it doesn't matter what age you are," said Sherry Whitman, regional MMAP coordinator at Escanaba's Upper Peninsula Commission for Area Progress, which is also the U.P. Area Agency on Aging. "A lot of folks that are younger have a disability and they get Medicare based on their disability, so we help anybody that has Medicare or is going to get Medicare understand their Medicare benefits. And we help them apply for programs that might be helpful to them, such as Medicaid programs, or Medicare Savings Programs.
With 48 volunteer MMAP counselors throughout the U.P., with one in almost every county and many in Marquette and Delta counties especially, Whitman estimated that the program has, since their fiscal year began in October, "probably helped about 200 people ... if not more onto an extra help program of some sort."
A senior citizen receives an injection from a health care professional in a stock photo. Volunteers are available in the Upper Peninsula to help seniors and others with disabilities obtain maximum benefits from Medicaid and Medicare. The Medicare/Medicaid Assistance Program is operated out of the Upper Peninsula Commission for Area Progress in Escanaba. (Journal file photo)
Whitman said that while Medicare - federal health insurance paid for by both employers and employees in the U.S. through the Federal Insurance Contributions Act payroll tax - is available for people 65 and older and those with disabilities, those who qualify for Medicare often don't realize all of the extra programs available to them, nor that they potentially meet the criteria for some type of Medicaid benefits, as well.
"I think a lot of people don't know about some of the Medicare Savings Programs and other extra help programs available for people who are specifically on Medicare," she said. "And they are income- and resource-based, but they have qualifications that are much more lenient than some of the traditional Medicaid programs. A lot of people just assume they're not eligible because they're not very low income, or they do have a little bit of money in the bank, but that's not necessarily true. So we're trying to find those people specifically right now."
Some of MMAP's outreach efforts include mailings, advertising, articles to be included in area seniors center newsletters and several upcoming "Welcome to Medicare" workshops that let attendees know about the available extra help programs.
"It's pretty far-reaching, and hopefully people are getting the message," Whitman said. "We're getting quite a few calls, so I think it's working."
Funds for supporting the MMAP program are provided by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and Administration on Aging and in turn distributed through the state of Michigan's Office of Services to the Aging to regional agencies like UPCAP.
Finding out if you're eligible is easy, Whitman said, and can often be done right over the phone, though counselors are also available for those who prefer an in-person interaction. People can call MMAP toll-free at 1-800-803-7174 or dial 2-1-1 from anywhere in the U.P. for more information and assistance.
"The calls come in through our Escanaba office and we put them on a call log and within 24 to 48 hours they will get a call back from a counselor either in their area or from our call center here," she said. "And sometimes things can be answered over the phone - even applications, a lot of times, can be done over the phone - because so many things are going Internet-based now ... But if somebody wants to sit down one-on-one with a counselor, we make that happen, too."
Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.