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June 27, 2006 > Understanding Medicare

Understanding Medicare

by Arnie Becker

As the number of Americans reaching retirement age increases dramatically, and the complexity of Medicare increases, there is a growing need for people to explain recipient options. In Alameda County and throughout California, a dedicated group of volunteers, many of them seniors themselves, give their time and talent to explain the benefits of Medicare and its various components. These are your local HICAP (Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program) counselors.

Since Nov. 15, 2005, when the open enrollment period for the new Medicare Part D drug insurance program began, HICAP volunteers have spent hundreds of hours providing information on the details of the programs. At senior centers, social security offices, community centers and other locations, counselors answered specific questions and gathered information for the Drug Plan Finder at In some cases HICAP volunteers identified people who were eligible for a subsidy to help with the cost of co-payments and premiums.

While the first open enrollment period for the Part D plans has ended, this has not lessened the need for counseling on the Part D plans and Medicare in general. First, people approved for the "extra help" can enroll in a Part D plan during the year. Second, those new to Medicare can also enroll in a Part D plan during the year. Finally, individuals with Medicare and Medi-Cal can change plans on a monthly basis. For the rest, the next open enrollment period is Nov. 15 to Dec. 31, 2006, with coverage starting Jan. 1, 2007. Those on Medicare who are not enrolled in a Part D plan now have the next several months to ask questions, study, and evaluate their on-going needs in advance of the next open enrollment period.

(Individuals may qualify for an income subsidy if their income is $14,700 or less and with savings no greater than $11,500. Married couples with incomes below $19,800 and savings less than $23,000 may be eligible.)

In Alameda County the HICAP program is managed by Janet Van Deusen and headquartered at 464 7th Street, Oakland. Along with Van Deusen, a dedicated staff supports the volunteers with information, training, a central appointment scheduling service, and coordination with other county services. All HICAP counselors must complete a six day training program and attend bi-monthly in-service training. HICAP also makes community education presentations to groups throughout the county.

To schedule a counseling appointment or a group presentation or for any question relating to Medicare, health insurance, or long term care call the HICAP office at (510) 839-0393 or (800) 434-0222.

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