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Anyone who has ever confronted a serious health issue knows that going on line for information can be a daunting process. How do you figure out what’s true and what isn’t, or even begin to sort through all the data that comes your way? And when it’s help you’re seeking, how do you get it in the easiest way possible?
I know from many years of “talking” – by phone, in person, and by email – to thousands of woman recently diagnosed with breast cancer or with a recurrence of the disease that it’s very easy to be misled into information that is not helpful. And I know from that experience that some government websites are either not very helpful — like that of the National Cancer Institute — or downright confusing and very hard to navigate, like that of the Food and Drug Administration.
So maybe I should not have been surprised and appalled to find that the website set up to guide people in making choices related to Medicare was worse than unhelpful. It’s pretty hostile to people trying to get information.
I’m only 59 years old, but I’m eligible for Medicare because I have ALS. ALS is one of those conditions that qualifies for almost automatic Social Security Disability coverage, and that coverage includes Medicare eligibility.
When I learned that I could get Medicare, I quickly turned to my older friends who are already taking advantage of the program, and asked them for guidance. Turns out there are lots of places that claim to be helpful. I consulted the folks who had helped me navigate the Social Security Disability application process and they quickly pointed me to www.Medicare.gov
That seemed promising. A central place to get information, learn about health care plans, and sign up for the best care available, given the resources I have.
If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
The first thing that happens when you go that website is that you have sign into the site. If you haven’t done that before, you have to register. This is to be expected, of course. So I signed up, and got myself a unique identifier and password, which would (should?) allow me to come back to the site anytime and get what I needed. I poked around on the site, did some searches, and then took a break.
Keep in mind that this is 2011. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect, in the 21st century, that a website that provides you with a unique identifier and password keeps track of information that you enter so you won’t have to enter again. But the government has not figured out how to do that with the Medicare site. So every time I visited the site to try to get information, I had to re-enter my date of birth and the start date of my Medicare coverage. Those are two bits of information that the government knows. Why do I have to re-enter them every time?
To make matters worse, searching the website for the plans available for someone in my situation – under 65, in the San Francisco Bay Area seem to be the relevant factors – turns up far less than the full range of options open to me. This from the go-to site for Medicare plan options.
I know that the site was showing me less than the full set of my true options only because the person helping me with this process is experienced with Medicare and knows the plans available in the area. The government’s Medicare site said there was only one plan available to me, from a company of which I had never heard. Fortunately, the person helping me knew better.
There is a lot of talk at the federal level of making Medicare more efficient. Maybe the efficiencies that need to take precedence are the ones that will help people who need Medicare to navigate the system. Especially people who don’t have help or the resources to find the help they need to deal with this unnecessarily complicated system.
© Barbara A. Brenner 2011